Cannes 2013: Nebraska Review (Second Opinion)

Nebraska11 The road movie has long been a staple of American cinema, a cross-country billboard for the brilliant, beautiful and, above all, young as they embark on the scenic route towards self-discovery. When Alexander Payne decides to bundle his characters into a car, however, you can guarantee it'll be a bumpy ride. These are men, middle-aged or older, driven to -and driving from- despair. About Schmidt (2002) followed a downtrodden widower (Jack Nicholson) as he travelled to his estranged daughter's wedding, and Sideways (2004) paired buddies Miles (Paul Giamatti), a frustrated writer, with washed-up actor Jack (Thomas Haden Church) on a wine-tasting trip through California. And it is this same sense of sour grapes that pervades Payne's fantastic fifth feature. Once again, the premise- a father and son take a road trip from Montana to Nebraska so that the former can claim a million dollar Mega Sweepstakes Marketing prize- sounds misleadingly simple. Instead it is an astute and often acerbic character study into smalltown dreams and disenchantment. Like Warren Schmidt, Woodrow 'Woody' Grant (Bruce Dern) is a stubborn, surly old man who somehow wins our sympathy from the outset. But winning that cash prize might not be so easy. No matter how many times his wife Kate (June Squibb) or sons David (Will Forte) and Ross (Bob Odenkirk) tell him that the $1m 'prize' is a scam designed to sell magazine subscriptions, Woody simply believes he is entitled to all that is promised to him. And, distrustful of the postal service, he's determined to collect the prize in person. So he sets off, on foot, on the 800-mile journey to Lincoln, Nebraska- only to be picked up by David or the police before he can even leave town. Concerned with his father's physical and mental state, and thinking that this may be the last opportunity for quality bonding time, David agrees to accompany Woody on the road to riches... Nebraska 3 Naturally, there are detours; ranging from stilted family reunions: to stopping off at Woody's hometown of Hawthorne to revisit his past and reminisce on what he considers to be his better days. Trouble is, Woody has fought with the bottle for years and so it isn't long before he lets slip of his good fortune and becomes something of a local celebrity. Unsurprisingly, after hearing of Woody's windfall, more than a few old faces creep out of the woodwork to remind David of all the favours they performed when his father was drinking heavily. With Woody's former business partner Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach) at the top of that list, appearing with increasing regularity and menace, it seems only fair that the money be used to ''do right ''. But with Woody pinning all his hopes on the prize-winning paper he keeps in his pocket, David can only look on in desperation at the drama that threatens to engulf not only a frail old man but his family, too. Shot in stark black and white, Nebraska is, like its protagonist, mischievous, melancholic and prone to bouts of nostalgia. Warm, humorous (the more surreal scenes sometimes border into Coen Brothers territory, but this is no bad thing) and with plenty of heart, the film marks a spectacular return to form for Payne- as well as a welcome return to our screens for Bruce Dern. His spectacular performance saw him take the Best Actor award at this year's Cannes Festival, and deservedly so. There's an understated sense of sorrow in Woody Grant's eyes, yet the film never descends into cheap sentimentality; something that prevented Payne's previous film, The Descendants, from reaching quite the same heights as Sideways or Election. Will Forte, in an uncharacteristically subdued role, plays a perfectly solid straight man who can still reap a few laughs and Odenkirk, perhaps underused, is as captivating as ever. But the show is well and truly stolen by June Squibb, who, in landing the best, bawdiest lines (for example, see how she settles the more rapacious members of her family into stunned silence) certainly gives Johnny Knoxville's Bad Grandpa some competition for this year's most indecent senior citizen. Thoroughly recommended.
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Matt Holmes is the co-founder of What Culture, formerly known as Obsessed With Film. He has been blogging about pop culture and entertainment since 2006 and has written over 10,000 articles.