American director Alexander Payne (Election) returns to the LFF this year with his black and white, geriatric comedy Nebraska (2013), which stars veteran screen legend Bruce Dern as world-weary protagonist Woody Grant. We first spy upon Woody on the open road, plodding resolutely – if unsteadily – towards the camera, before the police bring him home to his nagging, belligerent wife (June Squibb). His sons, David (Will Forte) and Ross (Bob Odenkirk), are thus called in to deal with him. It turns out that their father has received a flier informing him that he’s won $1 million, to be collected from Lincoln, Nebraska.
Unable to convince Woody that this is a simple scam (“My father believes things people tell him”), David decides to drive him down to Lincoln and thereby rid him of the delusion. Payne’s latest is a sharp, subtle and brilliantly-observed dramedy which, despite the novelty of its monochrome cinematography, is still something of a retread of the director’s previous films. It has a similarly grouchy curmudgeon for its protagonist as 2002’s About Schmidt, and comparable sympathy for the despair of the almost-obsolete. The road movie structure is there also, and here the film most resembles Payne’s Sideways, with father and son gradually bonding as they visit long-forgotten family and famous landmarks.
When David and father stop off to visit family, an old friend of Woody’s, Ed (Stacy Keach), gets wind of news about the money and – taking it seriously – reveals a nasty streak. Woody’s family of dumb hick nephews concurrently arrive, with Payne once again indulging in some easy, ‘white trash’ comedy at the expense of what are essentially ‘grotesques’. That said, if you’re a fan of Payne’s other films of intelligent wit and gentle charm, then there’s still much to enjoy with Nebraska. The dialogue is at times brilliant, and the performances are, almost without exception, deftly realised. An obvious highpoint is Dern’s, grumpy, often confused Woody; not a sympathetic character, but one who has knuckled down to a life of quiet desperation.
We learn along the way that we don’t fully know Woody and, in his pig-headed determination, he has something in common with the protagonist of David Lynch’s The Straight Story (1999). Squibb also takes full advantage of her barnstorming role as Woody’s bragging and nagging Catholic wife, Kate. Payne occasionally lays on the crowd-pleasing treacle with a little too much eagerness, and his latest is unlikely to draw in those who already find his movies smugly twee. Yet, for Payne admirers, Nebraska is another finely-tuned, superior slice of cinema from the American master.
The 66th Cannes Film Festival takes place from 15-27 May, 2013. For more of our Cannes 2013 coverage, simply follow this link.