I’m a big fan of Alexander Payne’s work – loved “Election,” loved “Sideways,” really liked “Citizen Ruth,” and felt warmly about “The Descendants.”
You’ll notice I left out “About Schmidt,” and that’s because, notwithstanding that Payne got a wholly unexpected performance out of Jack Nicholson (an achievement which the Academy should honor with a special award of its own), I found the experience of watching the movie to be really unpleasant. Schmidt is so thoroughly unhappy a man, and so thoroughly unaware of the nature of his unhappiness, and he seems so comprehensively trapped by his own nature and the nature of things – that it was almost too painful to sit through. (Nonetheless, my favorite moment in the movie was one of the most cringe-inducing – the moment when Schmidt comes on to a lady in a trailer park who has invited him in to dinner; he’s confused kindness with attraction, and behaves so wildly inappropriately that the evening is completely irrecoverable. It’s a brilliant and true moment.)
Payne’s new movie, “Nebraska,” has a lot in common with “About Schmidt.” Both are set primarily in Nebraska; both deal with elderly men who feel they have missed life somehow (and associate that missing out with having married June Squibb), and who go on a quixotic road trip in a roundabout way of trying to resolve their existential dilemmas. The largest difference is that “Nebraska” centers not on the old man, Woody Grant (played by Bruce Dern), but on his son, David (played by Will Forte), who agrees to take his father on the trip (from Billings, Montana, to Lincoln, Nebraska, to claim supposed sweepstakes prize money that everybody but Woody knows doesn’t exist), mostly to get him to shut up (and to keep him from setting out to walk the 850 miles).
Objectively, “Nebraska” would appear to be even more depressing than “Schmidt.” Nearly everybody in the film, with an important exception (a one-time girlfriend of Woody’s, Peg, played by Angela McEwan, who lost out to Kate in the marital contest because she wouldn’t sleep with him before they married), is thoroughly unhappy. Woody is losing his mind, but by all reports when he had all his marbles he spent most of his time trying to lose them, passed out drunk and ignoring his kids. His shrewish wife (named Kate, appropriately enough) has not only lost patience with him but with everybody else in the universe. David has a boring job that he isn’t especially good at (selling stereo equipment), and a girlfriend who has moved out because she’s finally tired of waiting for him to propose. Even his brother, who may finally have gotten a good break at work (on local television), only got it because someone in his way got a “really bad infection.” Nobody is exactly making it. And Billings is, economically speaking, in much better shape than their old home town of Hawthorne, Nebraska, where Woody and David stop on their way to Lincoln, and where they spend most of the movie, a town where everyone who hasn’t left is old or truly hopeless, or both. (At least one of Woody’s brothers still lives in town, with his wife and two dim-witted middle-aged sons, one of whom is doing community service after a conviction for rape.)
If it weren’t for the exceptional performances, the first hour would be pretty tough to sit through. But the movie softens in its last act. We slowly see another side to Woody – that, at heart, he’s a generous person, just not a particularly communicative or responsible person. He wants to do what people ask of him, and they take advantage of him. And that dynamic made him bitter over time, leaving him a man who had no time for his sons, or for much of anything but the solace of the bottle. And that, in turn, embittered his wife – but by the end, we’ve seen another side of her, too, not a softer side but a tenderer one – a fundamental loyalty, and below that, something like love.
Those revelations come so stealthily, and Dern’s performance adjusts so subtly that you might almost miss the change. Which is wonderful; this isn’t the kind of film, or the kind of performance, that tells you outright what you need to see. You’ll most-likely notice it because Forte shows us that he sees it, which lets us know to pay attention.
I have the vague sense that the commentary on the movie has emphasized the bleakness of the economic situation out there on the high plains, and it does seem bleak. But I think there’s a connection implied between Woody’s character and that circumstance. Payne seems to me to be saying something about where those character qualities of Woody’s – a fundamental generosity combined with a kind of dim-witted incapacity or stubborn unwillingness to communicate – and the character of the region, and with both of their trajectories. He doesn’t have any kind of answer for it – this isn’t the kind of film that has answers to any of the questions it poses. But he does seem to love both Woody and Nebraska (his home state), in spite of their ultimate hopelessness. As do we, by the end.