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Ain’t That America

by Laura Leon on January 8, 2014

Directed by Alexander Payne


I couldn’t wait to dislodge myself from a matinee showing of Nebraska. The theater was hot, and it was packed, and I’m notoriously claustrophobic. The film itself takes place across vast expanses of Middle America, including Montana, Wyoming and, of course, the Cornhusker State, but while such scenes are visually wide open and sweeping, they also compress the soul, reminding one of the insignificance of his or her existence in the face of such stark, bleak grandeur. There are miles of roads but nowhere to run, and you don’t have a car anyway.

Dern & Squibb in Nebraska

So, yes, I was grateful when the credits finally rolled and I could escape on to the bitter cold street. My reaction, upon release, was almost like when I have an asthma attack and have trouble locating the inhaler—that gradually mounting sense of terror that blessedly is assuaged by the gasp of Albuterol.

But here’s the thing. The next day, I couldn’t get my mind off Nebraska, the story. Woody Grant (a sublime Bruce Dern) thinks he’s won a million bucks and is hell-bent to go back to Lincoln to claim his prize, even if he has to walk every step of the way. Wife Kate (June Squibb) and son David (Will Forte) know that the “prize” is a Publishers Clearing House-type ruse, but cannot distract Woody from his goal, from his sheer desire to finally be a winner. At last, partly out of desperation and partly just to get out of town, David agrees to drive Woody there, despite Kate’s vinegar-worded protestations.

This being an Alexander Payne film, the road trip goes notably, er, sideways, as father and son bicker over whether to take a quick side trip to see Mount Rushmore (“It looks unfinished!” decrees the sire) and especially over issues from the past, such as Woody’s drinking and apparent disregard for his family. Eventually, the pair hit Hawthorne, Woody’s hometown, where they are reunited with a few generations of the Grant family. These are old men who stare placidly at football games on TV, and young ones with absolutely nothing to do. Despite David’s best efforts to keep mum on the subject, Woody’s “windfall” becomes big news in town, resulting in the usual—and some unexpected—vultures coming in for the kill.

While a tad long (what movie isn’t these days?), Nebraska is a brilliant evocation of the rich tapestry that is the lives we have lived. Not necessarily successful or heroic, Woody is more than the sum of his bushy white hair, his walk, even his drinking. His is a life lived before people obsessed over whether to marry, and when to have that next child. Indeed, there are funny moments in which David, incredulous, asks his father whether he and Kate had talked about how many kids to have, to which Woody replies that the two Grant sons were the result of his horniness and Kate’s Catholicism. When David queries whether Woody ever loved Kate, the older man says simply, “It never came up.” Woody’s gruffness is in stark counterpart to Kate’s vocal pyrotechnics, which come into better play when she travels with older son Ross (Bob Odenkirk) to Hawthorne after her husband has an accident. While it seems the woman has nothing good to say about anybody, there are brilliant evocations of family honor when certain individuals accuse Woody of wrongdoing. She may call him a dumb cluck, and worse, but nobody else can.

In the end, Nebraska is a beautiful story of fathers and sons trying to bridge the chasms that separate them, without becoming all touchy-feely, and without this father and son ever really truly, completely understanding the other. And maybe not even wanting to. Moreoever, it’s a great, poignant glimpse at choices made, chances missed, and at how they define the road we end up on. I couldn’t help but think of that old Let’s Make a Deal term, “consolation prize,” and realize it’s more than just the home game of Jeopardy! and a toaster oven. Payne, screenwriter Bob Nelson and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael join forces to create an indelible glimpse into American life, families, men, and coming to terms with all of it.