Alexander Payne loves to film the shape of cloud formations, houses on hillsides, bent road signs, run down little bars, and just about every other landmark of the vast expanse of America that is the Midwest. He’s rightly the region’s cinematic poet, though it’s a shame he stands so alone at that post, because his talent for nailing down the middle part of the country winds up revealing how little of it we ever actually see in mainstream movies. There are something like 48 states in this country that are underrepresented in movies, and the vast majority aren’t lucky enough to have their solitary artist sticking up for them
Payne is reassuringly good at beautifying small stories about normal people living in farm country, or in the reassuringly mid-size cities that can be found dotting it. Nebraska, his sixth film, and fourth set in the Midwest, is a gorgeous black and white visual poem to the farm land in and around Billings, Montana and Hawthorne, Wyoming. On that level, it succeeds brilliantly. Payne may be known for putting some gravitas back in the part of the country most often derided in the movies, but the best kept secret about him is that he is a master visual stylist who constructs clockwork little worlds that aren’t as showy, but are every bit as succinct, as those made by the man most known for that trick, Wes Anderson.
This is to say that Nebraska is a film you feel you live in — or at the very least get comfortable with — if you focus on its tone, which is not hard to do. Payne is no one-trick pony. He doesn’t just prettify small towns; he goes to considerable lengths to capture the tone of everyday life. Nebraska is never in enough of a rush to tell its story that it forgoes capturing the way a bar full of old men sit when they’re drinking, or the way a small-town newspaper can turn a family passing through town into front page news. But of course you can’t focus on a movie’s tone the whole way through, no matter how beautifully a good director can modulate it. You eventually have to turn your attention to the story, which, in Payne’s worlds, concerns struggles with family, money, alcohol and bad blood, the stuff of everyday life. And a big part of the tone of everyday life, I think most would agree, is dealing with bad actors. The people who lie to your face and equivocate and backpedal and backstab; the people you have to be aware of to stay afloat. Payne captures this aspect of everyday life better than probably even he knows.
Payne’s no stranger to representing the bad actors (or, more simply, the liars) in life. He loves to include these miserable little people and the moments they conjure in his stories. The major examples are Matthew Broderick’s desperately duplicitous social studies teacher in Election and Thomas Haden Church’s hopelessly untrustworthy womanizer in Sideways. But Payne is just as susceptible to everyday life as his characters: his films themselves, not just the characters in them, can fall prey to the damage of bad actors, which is what Nebraska inadvertently proves. For the first time in Payne’s filmography he has given a main part to an actor not up to the task, and it nearly sinks the film.
Will Forte has made his name as a comedian. Many comedians have found themselves more than suited for drama after establishing themselves as funny men. The major examples are Tom Hanks and Jim Carrey, but Albert Brooks and Bill Murray and Jamie Foxx and Ben Stiller have all proven more than adept at heavier roles when given a shot (in Brooks’s case, he gave himself the shot, no doubt more than confident in his casting.) But Forte has been a flop in the movies so far, as Magruber and The Brothers Solomon prove. Payne’s decision to give him the biggest part in Nebraska seems based on some insight into the comedian’s persona that, as a director, he was unable to bring out on screen. Forte works hard to make the part of a dutiful son register, but watching him act amounts to exactly that: with every line he delivers and every emotion he conveys, you can see him getting ready to “act,” as if the notes in the margins of his script were what he was playing instead of the emotions of the scene.
But this is Payne, one of the best directors working, and so even a bad casting call isn’t fatal. He does have the excellent Bruce Dern in the other lead, as Woody Grant, the alcoholic, taciturn father to Forte’s David Grant. The story revolves around Woody mistaking a scheisty mass-mailer prize giveaway that promises him $1,000,000 for the real thing. Woody refuses to read the small print, which denies him even a fighting chance at the money. He insists that he’s won, and feels he deserves it (or at least convinces everyone around him that he feels that way). All of which sends Woody and David on a road trip to Lincoln, NE to claim Woody’s prize. The majority of the film takes place in small town Wyoming, where they and eventually the rest of their family, including June Squibb as Woody’s sardonic wife and Bob Odenkirk as his oldest son, are waylaid when Woody is mistaken for the Wyoming version of nouveau riche.
As in About Schmidt, the basic premise is primed for slapstick, but Payne coolly undercuts expectations. Nebraska could easily have been a film about an old man having his just desserts by fooling his old enemies into thinking he’s a millionaire, just as About Schmidt could have been a film about a father pulling elaborate stunts to save his daughter from marrying into idiocy. Payne and Dern work against both cinematic expectations and Forte’s earnestly transparent imitation of acting to bring Woody’s quiet struggle to balance the local celebrity that his phantom fortune offers him with his real, sad desire to be left alone and drink himself to sleep. For once in a Payne film, the script isn’t perfect. There is some confusion in the basic premise of Woody’s quest — it’s never made clear whether the old man really believes he has won a million or whether he’s taking some kind of stand against a modern world that’s moved past him by insisting that a piece of exploitative marketing own up to its false promise. If the film’s message is wrapped up in the latter, and the old man really is taking a stand, then Payne has conveyed it too subtly. That essential confusion mixed with Forte’s distracting presence make Nebraska a decidedly minor Payne work. But in a world of billion dollar prequels to comic book franchises, we should take beautifully shot movies dotted with subtle moments anywhere we can get them.