Nine years ago, I visited an apartment complex area in Seoul simply because of a sentimental reason of my own. I used to live there only during 1989-91, but the memories of that time are remained vividly in my mind, and it was a little depressing for me to see how much my old neighbourhood looked different compared to my memories. Some buildings such as my former elementary school remained same just like an apartment building my family lived in, but lots of things were changed, and my brain kept making comparisons between now and then. In the end, I sat down on a bench in the schoolyard belonging to the other school in the neighbourhood, and I mused for a while on the time never to be regained as sensing wistful nostalgia growing in my heart.
In Alexander Payne’s new film “Nebraska”, there is a memorable scene which somehow reminded me of that personal experience of mine during my viewing. Around the middle of the story, its hero and others drop by an old house he lived in the past, and he reminisces about his old time as he and others look around the house which is now empty and desolate with no one to live in. The past still remains in his memories, but almost everything is gone now, and he is not young any more while things have been changed a lot in his life.
Woody Grant(Bruce Dern) is an old guy who has been living in Billings, Montana for many years since he moved from his hometown in Nebraska a long time ago, and it is clear to us right from the opening scene that he has some serious mental health problem besides aging. He wants to go to Lincoln, Nebraska for himself just because he received a letter notifying to him that he won $1 million sweepstakes prize, but, as his caring son David(Will Forte) soon finds out, it is one of those mail scams which actually promise nothing while making receivers purchase magazine subscription instead.
But Woody is stubbornly oblivious to that in his mind which sometimes seems to be pretty foggy and delusional, and his continuous attempts to go to Lincoln for collecting that false sweepstakes have driven others around him crazy. His sarcastic wife Kate(June Squibb) does not tolerate this foolishness at all, and the same thing can be said about Woody’s other son Ross(Bob Odenkirk, who looks less brash than he did in TV series “Breaking Bad”), who, like his mother, thinks sending Woody to nursing home may be the best option for both him and the family.
David, who feels rather sorry about his father although their relationship was not so good even when he was young, decides to help him on one day. After all, there is nothing harmful about driving his father to Lincoln just for satisfying his futile delusion, so David leaves for Lincoln with him, but he only finds again that his father is a difficult man to deal with. During one night, Woody somehow gets injured on his forehead while losing his denture somewhere, and that leads to one of many amusing scenes to come in the movie.
Now it sounds like a typical road movie to you, but the director Alexander Payne and his screenplay write Bob Nelson takes a detour early in their first act, and the result is an observant character drama depending on mood and characterization rather than plot. Woody and David eventually go to Woody’s hometown in Nebraska for an imprompt family meeting while Kate and Ross soon follow them, and we meet various people in the town including his family members and several town people he knew. After Woody unwisely mentions about his sweepstakes prize, they all hang around him like vultures for getting some money from him, and the most notable one is Ed Pegram(Stacy Keach), a bullying obnoxious prick who has not yet returned an air compressor he borrowed from Woody many years ago.
Going deftly back and forth between humor and pathos as he did in his previous works such as “About Schmidt”(2002) and “Sideways”(2004), Payne depicts his characters as flawed people with understandable human behaviors, and they feel as real as his melancholic version of faded Americana unfolded on the screen. Through the black-and-white cinematography by Pehdon Papamichael and the old-fashioned logo of Paramount Pictures at the beginning, the movie evokes the ambience of American films made during the 1960-70s, but it also feels contemporary as reflected by several small details including a flat screen TV and a Kia car(the movie was shot by digital camera instead of film camera, by the way).
With this contrast between the old and the new on the screen, nostalgic feelings are amplified around the characters whenever they come upon the remains of lost time. In one poignant scene, David encounters a woman who was once Woody’s girlfriend before he married Kate, and he came to learn about his father more than before as spending some time with her at her workplace. She tells him she is satisfied with her life which has been pretty good to her, and she really looks happy and contended, but you may sense that she is wistfully wondering about what her life could have been as she is kindly showing Woody’s forgotten past to David.
The scene in which Kate and Woody visit the town cemetery with their sons is also filled with the wistful nostalgia toward a bygone era. As Kate recognizes more names on tombstones, we observe an undeniable truth in the closing chapter of their life; many people in their life are gone now and they may be the next ones to go gently into darkness someday. While earnestly recognizing that depressing fact of life, the movie does not lose its sense of humor, and we are amused to see that Kate still retains some of her wild spirit despite her age.
And Bruce Dern, who received Best Actor award at the Cannes Film Festival in last year and then was Oscar-nominated for one of the best performances in his long career, gradually takes the center. Besides his many other negative aspects, Woody is a pathetic and delusional guy who is not changed much even in the end, but, thanks to Dern’s unaffected performance, he comes to us as a sad, broken man who is left with nothing much to do after used by not only others but also himself. There are many moments when we are not so sure about what is exactly going on inside Woody’s rather elusive mind(it is possible that he is going through the early stage of dementia), but, while never reaching for pity or sympathy, Dern and Payne make us understand that this unhappy man desperately holding onto a false hope deserves a little kindness at least.
Like Dern, the other actors smoothly slip into the story and its background through their natural ensemble performance. The movie is about David as much as it is about Woody, and Will Forte, who is mainly known for his comic performances in “Saturday Night Live” and “30 Rock”, is commendable as the main voice of common sense in the movie. Quite different from his loony turn in several episodes of “30 Rock”, Forte dials down his comic side to considerable degrees, and his earnest performance effectively functions as the solid ground for Dern and other supporting performers.
As Woody’s acerbic wife, June Squibb, an 84-year-old veteran actress who previously appeared as Mrs. Schmidt in “About Schmidt”, has deservedly received lots of acclaims and attentions along with her recent Oscar nomination for her enjoyable performance. Wearing her feisty heart on her sleeve as she probably did before, Kate has no hesitation in showing her frustration and annoyance toward her husband, and we can only imagine how much she has endured him during their married life, but one brief scene quietly implies that she still cares about her incorrigible husband as the life-long partner who has spent many years with him.
Alexander Payne, who was born and grew up in Nebraska, has made a number of fabulous works which were praised for sharp storytelling and good performances, and “Nebraska” is another terrific work from a talented director who has been steadily establishing himself as one of the leading American filmmakers since his debut through “Citizen Ruth”(1996) and “Election”(1999). Like many films about journey, the journey itself in the movie eventually becomes more important than its destination, and it serves us with a rich experience filled with drama and humor as its pathetic hero trying to grasp something utterly unattainable from the start. In the end, you won’t be surprised to see that nothing much is changed for Woody and others, but, after knowing a bit about him through his trivial journey, you will probably agree to the ending which allows him something to remember, though I think it won’t matter to him sooner or later.