Nebraska (2013) is a bittersweet B&W comedy in which a lonely son (Will Forte) takes his ailing dad (Bruce Dern) on a road trip from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska. It is another of director Alexander Payne’s deadpan Midwestern comedies (Election , About Schmidt , Sideways , The Descendants ) but the first for which he did not write the script, which was authored by first-timer Bob Nelson.
Nelson was an out-of-work comedian in his 50s who wrote a spec script about his hard-drinking Nebraskan father. It made the rounds and was eventually optioned by Ron Yerxa and Albert Berger, who had produced Election. According to The Hollywood Reporter they sent it to Payne: “He's from Nebraska; we thought maybe he'd know of a director he could mentor. Instead, Payne said, ‘How about me?’". Payne was shown the screenplay while he was preparing Sideways, and he did not want to follow that road trip movie with yet another, and so he put it aside until after completing The Descendants. Nebraska finally starting shooting in October 2012 and premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2013.
The story begins in Billings with Woody Grant (Dern) walking down the side of a highway, intent on making it to Lincoln, Nebraska. He received a letter in the mail from there that says he won a million dollars, though it is clear to his wife Kate (June Squibb) and his sons David (Forte) and Ross (Bob Odenkirk) that it is just false advertising to encourage magazine subscriptions. But no one can convince the impossibly stubborn Woody otherwise. David, whose girlfriend has just broken up with him, wants to get out of town and sees a road trip as a way to clear his head and get some bonding time with his obstreperous and closed-off dad.
Payne originally envisioned Bruce Dern in the part, but Paramount encouraged him to seek a bigger star. But after failing to lure Gene Hackman out of retirement, they returned to Dern, who was eager to take center stage after making a career out of eccentrically charismatic supporting parts. Dern makes the most of his opportunity, shredding his voice into an accusatory death rattle as he shambles through the towns of his youth, his shock of white hair, overgrown stubble and too-loose flannel shirts making him look like a bum on his final bender.
Paramount was also dead set against releasing the film in black-and-white, and according to producer Albert Berger, were threatening to cut the budget “from $17 million down to under five.” But then The Descendants went on to earn $177 million worldwide, and the budget was restored to “13 million and change.” DP Phendon Papamichael’s cinematography is starkly reminiscent of Robert Frank’s road trip photo book The Americans, seeking poetry in road signs, gas stations, used car lots and the broken-down grandeur of Woody’s sunken profile.
One of the backdrops of the story is the aftershocks of the Great Recession and how it hollowed out the economy of these already-declining small towns. So everybody wants to believe, like Woody does, that the million dollars is real – that it is actually possible to see that amount of money in the world. Some handle it with generosity, others with greed and comic attempts at slapstick violence (Payne is a vocal admirer of silent comedy). And it should be noted that Jane Squibb is an uproarious howitzer of foul insults throughout – but no better when she aims fire at Woody’s family for taking advantage of his generosity and gullibility throughout his life. He is a deeply flawed man, but at least his flaws stem from a belief in others. So when David stage manages a literal ride off into the sunset for his senescent dad, it’s a temporary triumph, but a triumph all the same.