© 2023 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

On Movies: 'Nebraska' beautiful but cold and dull

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 2, 2013 - "Nebraska" is so well made, so beautifully filmed and, in the main, so well acted, I really wish I had liked it more. But this portrait of men and women stuck in a rut on the Great Plains seems cold and dull, particularly when compared with such rambunctious previous movies by Alexander Payne as "Sideways" and "The Descendants."

Life may be slow in small-town Middle America, but that doesn't mean a movie about that life has to creep along at a turtle's pace for a full 1 hour and 50 minutes.

Woody (Bruce Dern), the stubborn, addled old man at the center of the story. gets a letter from a company that peddles magazine subscriptions suggesting that he had won $1,000,000. Woody lives in Billings, Mont. The letter came from Lincoln, Neb., more than 800 miles away. So one day Woody sets out walking east, on the shoulder of the highway, to pick up his sweepstakes winnings in person.

His son, David (Will Forte), virtually the only character in the movie who seems both decent and all there, catches up with him. After failing to persuade his father that the letter is a scam, David reluctantly agrees to drive him to Lincoln.

The film is shot in black and white, and the backdrop of the trip along the interstate is a stark and wind-scoured landscape that barely varies as the father and son move east. The hypnotically boring feeling of a long trip on the interstate is captured very well, perhaps too well.

On the way to Lincoln, David and Woody end up in Woody's old hometown of Hawthorne, Neb. David's mother and brother show up for a reunion with Woody's extended family, and inevitably the word gets out that Woody has won a million-dollar sweepstakes.

Pretty soon, Woody's cousins and nephews and sisters-in-law, plus his pugnacious former business partner (Stacy Keach), are trying to get a piece of Woody's pie in the sky. More than one person makes apparently spurious claims that Woody owes them money from the old days. The requests for money turn into demands, complete with threats of lawsuits and even of physical harm.

The film is clearly supposed to be a comedy, and there are some funny moments -- I loved the recurring images of the old man who parks himself in a chair at the side of a side road to watch the occasional car go by. But much of the fun consists of satirical looks at the supposed greed of ordinary small-town people, people who have been living through some pretty rough economic times and might understandably be desperate for money. Satire works best when it punctures the proud and preening, the winners in society.  Most of the characters in this movie don't have much going for them in the first place. And that most definitely includes Woody.

The movie ends, and we still don't really know much about Woody except that many among his family and old friends are, at the same time, really gullible and really greedy. Somehow I wanted more. "Nebraska" is worth seeing, but prepare yourself for some questionable satire and some long, slow stretches when Alexander Payne makes the point that nothing is happening by showing us nothing happening.

Now showing.

Harper Barnes is a special contributor to the Beacon.

Harper Barnes
Harper Barnes' most recent book is Never Been A Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked The Civil Rights Movement

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.