Late in Alexander Payne’s affected and deliberate comedy Nebraska, two sons (Will Forte and Bob Odenkirk) take their reluctant father (Bruce Dern) to see what remains of his childhood home. The care, apprehension and indifference he exhibits as he paces, weary and a bit disinterested, through the deserted house are touching. There’s plenty to be read into the sparse dialogue: aging, family, money, death.
The 400-Word Review: Nebraska
By Sean Collier
December 16, 2013
Wait a minute — this is supposed to be funny?
The tone struck by Nebraska is a peculiar one; while the themes are weighty and the characters unflinchingly sad, much of the script is written for laughs. Even the camerawork and black-and-white photography reflect the bleak and often upsetting realities of old age; director, actors and screenwriter, though, keep us chuckling.
The film is acclaimed by many and currently racking up nominations and awards on a daily basis, so clearly, many got the joke. Unfortunately, I did not. The story is sad: Woody (Dern) is convinced that he’s won a Publishers Clearing House style prize, and keeps trying to walk from his Montana home to Lincoln to claim it. Sad-sack son David (Forte) agrees to drive him, to show him the prize is a scam — but really to get some time with his father before the old man’s mind finishes leaving.
The family and former friends encountered along the way (the pair end up making an extended stopover with relatives) all provide new — and equally sad — commentary. The payoff (no spoilers, but yes, we do get a payoff) is depressing, and it’s followed by a hokey epilogue that denies whatever message we were supposed to be gleaning in the first place.
I can’t shake the feeling that I’m off the mark about Nebraska, but I found myself actively angry at it for much of the second and third act. I’m also not convinced that many of its gags derive their humor from witty writing and clever setups — in a bunch of instances, the jokes are disguised laugh-at-the-old-guy exploitation. There is territory separating Nebraska and Jackass Presents Bad Grandpa, but not as much as you’d think.
Bruce Dern is undeniably great, and at least does seem to have a developed understanding of the story; I can’t say that for all of his co-stars, however. Ultimately, Payne’s admittedly individual film is too wrapped up in a joke that isn’t funny anymore to truly praise.
Sean Collier is the Associate Editor of Pittsburgh Magazine and a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. Read more from Sean at pittsburghmagazine.com/afterdark