More than ten years after he brought About Schmidt to Cannes, The Descendants director Alexander Payne was on the Croisette with his latest film – Nebraska – back to play in contention for the Palme d’Or. Starring Bruce Dern and Will Forte, and filmed from a script he’s apparently been sitting on for some time, the film focuses on a typically dysfunctional father/son road trip that ways astray to a run-down town in the middle of Nebraska where Dern’s character grew up, and where he still has baggage to attend to.
On the trail of a million dollar sweepstake he believes he has won, the drunken wash-up drags his distant son (Forte) across America for some quality bonding time, and some inevitable hi-jinx. After taking a break from the road with The Descendants (he says shooting people in cars is a drag,) Payne is back doing what we love him for – travelling in the company of odd characters, marvelling at their eccentricities and most importantly how they bounce off one another.
Woody (Dern) is the focus of the narrative, thanks to how the story pushes him forward, and his performance of the broken, proud man, who never seems wholly equipped for social or familial situations is extremely touching. There is a lot of comedy in his decrepit state, and particularly in his relationship with his wife (played by the incomparably funny June Squibb) but there is also more than a faint hint of tragedy.
He is marked by death, or so he thinks, and it turns out his quest for his loot is more than a merely obstinate conviction for a reward, and his shuffling, pain-addled physical performance offers the most tangible sign that he may not be long for this Earth.
The decision to cast SNL actor Will Forte may have seemed an odd one on paper, given the difference in subject matter than he might be most familiar with, but there is certainly something valuable with how familiar he feels, and how easy it is to relate to him. He also knows exactly how to deliver comically-toned lines, even when he’s playing the straight man, and as ever with actors of his background, there is a wonderful touch of pathos that traditionally dramatic actors always seem less tuned to.
It is of course the central dynamic that matters most – Forte and Dern bounce off together very well – swapping straight and unintentionally funny roles throughout the film, and their genesis as a dynamic is what holds the ever-so-slightly too long narrative together. The characters they encounter – all grotesques, but extremely close to home – are great too, including Dern’s wider (and giant) family, including two comical cousins (one of whom is played by Home Alone’s Devin Ratray) and a supposed old friend (Stacy Keach) who has an agenda for Woody’s winnings.
Nebraska may seem more slight than Payne’s other works, but there are inevitably some weighty themes in discussion here, which Payne generously allows his audience to explore mostly themselves without insistence, and the acting on display is perfectly pitched, and makes for some seriously funny moments. If you thought Kristen Scott Thomas had the Cannes award for hilarious profanity nailed, think again – June Squibb just about lands the knock-out blow with a number of deliciously funny, and completely outrageous moments.
It’s black and white, it’s from the director of The Descendants, and it deals with a dysfunctional family element on the road – how could this not be considered for awards season, even before it turned out to be a joy? The studio are clearly at least half-motivated by it, given the November release date, but this is no simple Oscar bait. Thankfully, Payne relies on story-telling and irresistible characters to drive his film, just as he has done in the past, and the result is a wonderfully drawn and utterly charming portrait of dysfunction that doubles as a curious love letter to the American family.
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