HIFF Review: ‘Nebraska’ Is Heartbreaking, Hilarious

Bruce Dern and Will Forte in "Nebraska."
Bruce Dern and Will Forte in "Nebraska." Photo credit: Paramount Vantage

Nebraska, the new film from Alexander Payne, was Sunday’s Centerpiece Film of the Hamptons International Film Festival and lead actors Bruce Dern and Will Forte attended the Guild Hall screening and participated in a post-viewing talk.

The darkish comedy, which received a rapturous reception, continues Payne’s sympathetic yet unflinching forays into the lives of the dispossessed and forgotten.

One of Payne’s earlier films, 2004’s excellent Sideways, chronicled a disastrous road trip undertaken by Miles, a middle-aged, divorced and heartbroken failed writer, and his college friend, a narcissistic actor named Jack. In addition to being an hilariously funny film, Sideways was also a lament for the delicate and for the well-meaning people whose efforts at creating beauty or searching for happiness get crushed by a callous and ugly world.

In Nebraska, the ugliness of the world becomes quite literal. The bleak cities and stark midwestern landscapes where the film is set are shot in cold black and white. In decaying houses, shell-shocked people watch sports on TV and struggle to talk about anything other than cars. Even supposedly majestic Mount Rushmore, which makes a cameo appearance, is pictured from an unflattering distance, reduced to “a pile of rocks.”

Amid this despair, Woody Grant thinks he has found something to live for. Portrayed seamlessly by the great Bruce Dern, the decrepit yet tenacious Woody, mentally enfeebled by dementia and alcohol abuse, thinks he has won a million dollars. In reality, Woody has simply fallen for a magazine subscription sales ploy, but he clings to his fantasy like a lifeline: his “prize” stands to make up for the things he’s done wrong, and the wrongs that others have done him. Out of pity and filial duty, his son David, played by the excellent Will Forte, agrees to drive him to the prize’s headquarters in Lincoln, Nebraska.

In Nebraska, this story, which is heartbreaking at its core, is surrounded by layers of hilarity. Woody’s wife, played by June Squibb, is a riot of loud-mouthed ball-busting. Woody’s nephews, country-creepy with hardly a brain between them, entertain mightily with their broken record put-downs regarding driving times and “jap” cars. An early interlude where Woody and David search for Woody’s missing dentures by some railroad tracks is a comic masterpiece in and of itself—one of several such scenes interlaced throughout Nebraska. Finally, the bit players, mainly untrained actors drawn from local populations where the film was shot, lend the film an authenticity and a powerful sense of place.

After the screening at Guild Hall, Dern and Forte spoke of their joy working together and the pleasure of working together with Alexander Payne’s team. In his remarks, Dern allowed that though the movie doesn’t try to disguise the bleakness of the midwestern setting, it also captures the raw, stubborn spirit which caused people to settle there in the first place. With Woody Grant, that spirit has a new name, for better or for worse.

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