Nebraska – London Film Festival review

Film critic James Rocarols delivers his verdict on Nebraska, director Alexander Payne‘s follow-up to The Descendants,  starring Bruce Dern as an ageing, booze-addled father making the trip from Montana to the titular state with his estranged son, in order to claim a million-dollar Mega Sweepstakes Marketing prize.

Alexander Payne, director of Nebraska, is one of the lucky ones; possessed of an extremely fortunate, even exalted position within Hollywood, for now at least. One of a small handful of filmmakers the major studios still indulge with delivering quality dramas that appeal to grown-up people, Payne even managed to convince Paramount to film his latest in black and white. The look certainly suits the film, with its emphasis on buried family histories and a forgotten suburban America that trundles along between the freeways.

Payne has again chosen to use the format of the road movie as a vehicle for his brand of bittersweet comedy, which makes it four films in a row now that have been based around journeys of discovery. But this time the motivation for the road trip is slightly more woolly than usual and the film’s dramatic shortcomings stem from both the filmmakers’ – and the characters’ – reticence about reaffirming the details of this unlikely chain of events.

The premise is that shuffling, alcoholic and possibly senile Woody Grant has become obsessed by one of those junk-mail letters purporting to be a million-dollar prize, which he believes to be wholly genuine. Nobody can convince him that it’s a ruse and he keeps trying to walk to the marketeer’s head office himself, which is two states away in Lincoln, Nebraska (having long ago lost his driving licence). So his son David, envisioning a rare chance to connect with his emotionally reticent father, agrees to drive him there. After suffering a setback the pair decide to make a pit-stop in their hometown of Hawthorne, where they arrange a hasty family reunion involving mother Kate (June Squibb), brother Ross (Bob Odenkirk) and a host of shady cousins and uncles.

The Grant’s adventures in the town from this point forward vary between assimilating the reverberations from the uncovering of various long-buried secrets and attempting to convince the townsfolk, now aware of their real motives in passing through the town, that they’re not really millionaires. David and Ross’ half-heartedness in clearing up the financial misunderstanding makes for some of the key dramatic and comedic encounters, but it’s also the main aspect of the story that doesn’t ring true.

However Payne is a master at crafting moments of wry humour and affecting poignancy, and the film is full of them. He’s also adept at the art of the affectionate swipe, managing to somehow paint his Midwestern townsfolk as duplicitous simpletons without it ever seeming condescending.

Much has been said about Bruce Dern’s performance and it is indeed heartening to see this long forgotten character actor getting such a substantial lead role. His performance is notable, but for the main part it’s a triumph of body language rather than dialogue delivery, because Woody doesn’t get many lines. In fact it’s Squibb as the plain-talking, tough-as-nails matriarch who steals the movie, by a distance.

Current thinking on Payne tends to the view that ever since the runaway success of Sideways his films have offered diminishing returns as he’s become a slightly more risk-averse, establishment figure with each film. I’ve always thought that unfair and found his previous work, The Descendents to be a fine movie that’s more mature than some of his earlier, revered classics.

However, it’s arguable that Nebraska seems like one road trip too far for Payne’s particular route-map. Nebraska is still a quality drama for discerning viewers, who will be grateful to see its kind still getting Hollywood’s green-light, but Payne fans may hope to see him stepping further out of his comfort zone next time around.

Nebraska is released in UK cinemas on December 6.

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