Bruce Dern and Will Forte in "Nebraska"

Bruce Dern and Will Forte in “Nebraska”

While there are many good things in director Alexander Payne’s new film “Nebraska,” something is missing.  “Nebraska” plays like a very good approximation of one of Payne’s films, which include “Election” (1999), “About Schmidt” (2002),  “Sideways” (2004) and “The Descendents” (2011).  At a certain point I felt “Nebraska” lapsed into a predictable resolution.  It has the pieces of a Payne film, but somehow not the conviction.

Now, having voiced my concerns in the previous paragraph, I want to point out that “Nebraska” has a number of things to recommend it. “Nebraska” certainly has a very good cast led by the under-utilized Bruce Dern.  Dern co-stars with “Saturday Night Live” alum Will Forte.   The two play Woody and David Grant, respectively, a father and son on a road trip from Minnesota to Nebraska.  Woody has received the equivalent of a Publisher’s Clearing House mailing implying that he has won a million dollars.  Woody, in the early stages of senility, is convinced that he has actually won the great prize and is determined to go to the address in Nebraska to claim it.  Woody does not trust the mail.  David, in a gesture to placate his father and to put this obsession to rest, decides to drive his father to Nebraska to settle the issue.  Along the way they meet friends and relatives who shed light on Woody’s past.

“Nebraska” has been beautifully shot in black and white.  I say “shot” as opposed to photographed, as “Nebraska” has been recorded digitally (as a lot of films are today) and so did not use the photochemical process.   The choice for black and white certainly fits this story that deals so much with the past and about lives not lived to the capacity that they might have been.  The characters are frequently shown in wide shots which show them against the context of their surroundings.  There is a lot of open space in the Midwest. While Payne shows the beauty of this part of the country, he also seems to be simultaneously showing us how culturally bereft it is.  For example, when Woody and Will stop to visit family all the group can do is sit silently and stare straight ahead at a televised football game.  There is no interaction.  I found this telling, observant and sad.

Does Woody receive his million?  Well, “Nebraska” is about the journey not the destination.

Somehow there seems to be a missing beat in “Nebraska.” There was just not the sense of character revelation that I have come to expect, and enjoy, from Payne’s movies.  I wonder if some of this could be due to the fact that “Nebraska” is one of the few Payne films, that I can recall, that has not used voice over.  Payne usually has the main character, or characters, tell us what is going on for them.  Voice over, in a movie, can be a tricky thing.  If not handled properly it can be perceived as a crutch.  In other words, the film is not making sense so the decision was made to explain what is happening.  This is not true in Payne’s films.  He is very good in his use of voice over and has made it an integral part of his most of his past movies.

Ultimately “Nebraska” is a mixed call for me.  The film has a very good cast, which, in addition to Dern and Forte, features nice performances by Stacy Keach and June Squibb, as well as a host of character actors with great faces.  “Nebraska” has been beautifully realized in black and white but, like the characters in the film, does not reach its potential.  Maybe that’s the point.

“Nebraska,” director Alexander Payne, 2013,

Paramount Vantage, 115 minutes, rated R



About unpaidfilmcritic

Up until 2009 Seth Shire spent nearly two decades in the New York film industry as a post production supervisor of feature films. Highlights include working on the films of Martin Scorsese, James Toback and Spike Lee. Since leaving the film industry Seth has expanded into new and varied areas where he has found a great deal of satisfaction. Seth currently teaches in the Sociology Department of CUNY Queens College. His courses include "Mass Media and Popular Culture," "Introduction to Sociology," and "Sociology of Cinema" where he is a very popular teacher. Seth is also the film critic for "Town & Village," a Manhattan weekly newspaper, a position he has held for the past six years. Seth gives back to his community through volunteer teaching at Manhattan's "The Caring Community," a center for senior citizens, where he teaches a very popular course on documentaries called "The Golden Age of the Documentary. In the fall of 2010 Seth taught "Critical Reading and Writing" at Parsons School of Design. He has also taught "Cinema Studies" at the New York Film Academy. Seth lives in Stuyvesant Town, in Manhattan.

Posted on December 28, 2013, in New and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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