Nebraska review: Bruce Dern delights in independent American dramedy

Posted on 10 December 2013
By Craig Kell
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The family bond between an elderly Mid-Western man and his adult son is captured subtly and humorously in Alexander Payne’s latest film, the comic-drama Nebraska.

A common theme with the Oscar-winning filmmaker’s work is mixing elements of his previous films into this latest outing.

With assistance from screenwriter Bob Nelson, Payne continues to inject dark humour in the masterful script from Nelson as the pair depict the characters as realistic as possible and the type of people that some audiences can relate to.

The lack of classic, shiny Hollywood looks actually works well and makes a refreshing change, giving us a chance to see ‘normal’ people doing normal things like Woody and his male relatives sat in the living room watching sport on the TV and make small talk.

This also comes from Payne’s low-key representation of America as he chooses to ignore the mainstream side, instead focusing on the small-town communities and those that have suffered financially from the recession.

Editor Kevin Tent and cinematographer Phedan Papamichael manage to maintain this structure with the latter filming in glossy black and white to capture the dreary mood of the American heartland with additional support coming from Mark Orton’s rich, instrumental score.

However, the towering success of the film comes from the actors, with the two male leads shining most.

With his blank expressions and sheepish appearance, Bruce Dern gives a remarkable performance as a man whose age and dementia leaves him clueless.

But he refuses to let it defeat him as he tries to pick up his million dollar win.

Given that other Payne actors like Jack Nicholson and George Clooney were lavished with awards recognition in the past, an Oscar nomination for Dern would be a satisfying result for someone who was last nominated way back in 1978.

Will Forte provides stable support as the long-suffering son who becomes frustrated by his father’s actions.

The duo’s chemistry is a rare delight as they make a believable father-son pairing with their constant arguments and sharing bottles of beer together.

Ably supporting the duo is veteran actress June Squibb as Woody’s nagging wife Kate – with her cranky yet concerned outbursts.

Out of the three actors, she benefits most from the film’s terrific script by unleashing smarmy remarks on near enough everyone but never goes too far in being cynical.

It’s also refreshing to see Bob Odenkirk in something that isn’t Breaking Bad as he lends a bit of subtly to his role as Woody’s more successful son.

However, the film only just falls short of being an indie masterpiece as a result of a couple of chief flaws.

Firstly, Payne tends to stereotype characters like David’s cousins. While the pair bring out the laughs with their stone-faced expressions and sneery responses, they are portrayed as overweight comedy punch bags which takes away the realistic aspect of the small-town folk.

Payne also overlooks a couple of back-stories that come and go, like David’s relationship with his former lover.

We see this developing near the beginning but it’s completely forgotten about later on.

Finally, the film does takes time to really settle, especially after the first twenty minutes – and it probably isn’t the easiest one to sit through with its lingering camera shots and lacking a change of scenery.

But despite these minor issues, Alexander Payne’s Nebraska is a finely tuned and emotional tale of optimism and broken dreams with old Bruce Dern giving a majestic performance.