It seems like the only good films I've seen so far in 2014 were actually all released in 2013. Considering some of the stuff released so far in 2014 though, it's probably for the best.
Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) believes he's won a million dollars and is willing to walk to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim his prize. His son, David (Will Forte), reluctantly drives him despite doing everything he can to convince Woody that this is all a scam and hasn't actually won anything. While driving to Nebraska, they encounter various former friends and family members that all think they deserve a piece of the pie. That's basically Nebraska in a nutshell. It's kind of Seinfeldian in its about nothingness.
So, why all the Oscar buzz and hype then, you ask? Even as a fan of director Alexander Payne's previous films, I was asking the same thing. I wasn't quite sure what I was in for as Nebraska started. I didn't know much more about it than who it starred and that it was in black and white. I'm happy to report though that the praise is well deserved. If you know me at all, then you know I tend to enjoy character based movies. Nebraska is a very good one. However, I can see this not being for everyone if you're not into quirky, slice-of-life stories where not a lot happens.
Based on the color palate, I was concerned that the tone of the film was going to be kind depressing. The choice to film it in black and white was a good one though. One thing I've always liked about modern films in black and white is that you tend to notice things, particularly with the lighting, that you wouldn't otherwise. It also forces you to focus more on the dialog and it's easier to pick up on some of the subtleties. Nebraska is a lot like life in that sometimes things just happen, and there many shades of grey.
About halfway through Nebraska, the phrase "pleasant awkwardness" kept popping in my head. It's never uncomfortable, even as we delve into the family's deeper issues. We watch people gain an understanding and acceptance. It gives the film a nice conclusion without delving into melodrama. The script by Bob Nelson is on the lighter side and very funny. If you check out his IMDB page though, it's odd to see that this is the only screenplay on his page. There's only a few TV writing credits otherwise, and those aren't very recent. Is that accurate? If so, it's pretty interesting see him get nominated for best original screenplay on his first go around. I know it's not the first time it's happened, but still. It's a very understated script. A lot of the humor comes from the reactions of characters. It doesn't try too hard to be clever or goofy, and a lot is said with facial expressions and stares. It reminded me me a bit of what I liked about The Descendants, but Nebraska doesn't quite pack the emotional punch that The Descendants did. That doesn't make any less poignant though.
Bruce Dern's great performance as Woody is how I imagine myself when I reach his age. Alcoholic, stubborn and generally disagreeable. He says whatever's on his mind and just doesn't care. It's why I'm looking forward to old age. Well that and farting in public. As the film moves on, you learn more about why Woody is the way he his, and Dern is able make him all that more sympathetic.
I also enjoyed Will Forte's performance. Initially, I thought it was an unusual casting, as despite his time on SNL, isn't exactly a household name. In just the opening minutes, you can see why he was perfect for the role. There's something about comedic actors that really nail being able to sell frustration and uncomfortable situations without trying to be funny. The same can be said for David's brother, Ross, played by Bob Odenkirk, who almost never disappoints and I wish he had been in the film a little more.
Everyone's talking about Bruce Dern, but I really got a kick out of June Squibb as his wife. I can see why she got a supporting nomination and she has some of the best moments of the film.
Nebraska is a funny, insightful film about family and filled with great performances. Again, it's one of those films whose quirk won't work for everyone, but if you like unusual character based stores, then I think you'll really enjoy it.
4 (out of 5) Death Stars