Nebraska is a rarity among the movies nominated for best picture at the Oscars this year. It succeeds so completely on every level that it was hard to argue against it in any of the categories it was nominated for, from Best Picture, to Best Director for Alexander Payne, to Best Actor for Bruce Dern, and Best Supporting Actress for June Squibb.
Most of all it deserved to win Best Original Screenplay, for Bob Nelson’s brilliant script. The screenplay is a work of art: light on its feet, dark, but not bleak. Sad and funny and hopeful, just like everybody in the world who can’t catch a break.
The story concerns an elderly Montana man, Woody Grant, teetering on the brink of senility, who believes he has won a million dollars because he got one of those Publisher’s Clearinghouse-style magazine sales pitches in the mail. He uses it to get his son to drive him to Nebraska to “claim his prize.”
Payne is a director capable of getting a lot out of films with somewhat less flashy premises than the competition. His Oscar-nominated hits The Descendants, Sideways, and About Schmidt were all simply plotted and expertly directed dramatic comedies, like Nebraska.
Dern is mesmerizing in the lead, as Woody. With relatively few lines, the legendary actor does a lot. It’s been 35 years since he was last recognized with a nomination from the Academy, and Dern is as sharp as ever.
Will Forte, known to most for his tenure on Saturday Night Live (MacGruber!) and sketch comedy legend Bob Odenkirk (Mr. Show, Breaking Bad) play his sons, and the casting of the two comedic heavyweights is part of the subtle brilliance of this simple film.
The runaway star of the picture is Squibb, who plays Woody’s long-suffering wife Kate. The veteran TV and film actress, who turns 85 later this year, just steals every scene she’s in. She brings fire, audacity, and fight to the family. Where Forte’s David seems to be carrying on his father’s long tradition of mediocrity, Kate has no patience for delusion, whether it’s that of her husband, sons, or extended family. If there’s any joy left in life, it’s going to be reality based.
The film is entirely in black and white, and obviously this is not the norm. What’s interesting is the question of what this film would be like if it were in color. I’m actually of the opinion that in color this film would be every bit as excellent. The writing, acting, and crisp direction are too good to be handicapped by such an obvious motif. But the black and white filming is beautiful, and able to simultaneously capture depressing and uplifting images. The decrepit and senile Woody walking down the side of the highway toward Nebraska is tragic and beautiful imagery.
Nebraska’s odds of coming up big at the Oscars were infinitely long, so its lack of recognition is not surprising. But it deserves to be seen by a wider audience. Even though it was recently released on DVD, do yourself a favor and catch it on the big screen.
Nebraska is playing at the Darkside Cinema in Corvallis.
By Ygal Kaufman