“These boys grow up staring at the rear ends of cows and pigs, it’s only natural that a real woman will get them chafing their pants.”
Simple. Quaint. Unassuming. It’s the perfect description of Nebraska in the fall, a state filled with tall green grass that flows in the wind, corn-cluttered fields ripe for harvest, and low-rolling hills that run across the entire landscape.
It also happens to be the perfect description of Nebraska, a poignant film from director Alexander Payne about a curmudgeonly old man, Woody Grant — played wonderfully by Bruce Dern — who is hellbent on traveling to the titular state’s capital city to claim the million dollars he’s been told he won by a sleazy direct marketing company.
The problem? First, it’s obviously a scam — though one he believes, nonetheless — and two, as an 80-something year old man from Billings, Montana with a broken down truck and no valid driver’s license, he doesn’t really have a way to get there. But, with his eyes on the prize and nothing better to do, he starts walking.
Woody is quickly stopped by a local police officer and dragged home by his worrying son, David (Will Forte), where he meets the ire of his crude wife, Kate (June Squibb). But by golly, one way or another, Woody is going to get to Lincoln to claim his million dollars. And because he’s so adamant, he inadvertently convinces David to take him there.
The pair embark on a road trip that takes them through South Dakota, where they stop to see the earless Abraham Lincoln (and his stone-faced pals) at Mt. Rushmore, and into Woody’s hometown of Hawthorne, Nebraska, where old friends, acquaintances, and long-left-behind family members are anxious to see Woody and even more excited to salivate over and beg for a slice of the million dollar pie.
Nebraska reminds me of my childhood — whether that’s something for which to applaud or about which I shouldn’t speak, I’m not totally sure, but it’s true nonetheless. And despite what some might tell you, that Payne is mocking Midwesterners and characterizing them all as simpletons or nitwits, the film’s director nails both his Midwestern characters as well as the look and feel of life in a small rural community. Take it from someone who grew up in south-central Minnesota and spent many a summer or school break with my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins in east-central Iowa.
Let’s do a quick rundown shall we?
A group of family members who haven’t seen each other in some time quietly hovering around the television to watch football, with the occasional occurrence of small talk between plays? That describes just about every Thanksgiving get-together for the duration of my elementary and high school years.
The assumption that every restaurant serves meatloaf, and if it doesn’t, the belief that it ought to? If I had a dollar for every time my grandfathers tried to order meatloaf at restaurants that obviously didn’t serve it, I might not have had to pay a dime of my own money for college.
Small-talk conversations between elderly men about old Buicks and Chevys that each used to own, pulling over on the side of the highway to pee without concern for who, if anyone, will drive by, and an elderly relative content to spend the afternoon sitting on the front lawn watching cars go by? Everyone, meet my Grandpa Henry. Grandpa Henry, this is everyone.
Payne gets perfectly right all the mundane little moments that make up rural and even suburban Midwestern life. The tempo of life in middle America is often slower than that of its coastal counterparts, and Nebraska shows that.
In Hawthorne, just as in my hometown, the hometowns of my parents, and the hometowns of my grandparents, everyone knows everyone, both by virtue of the towns being so small and by the fact that everyone, more or less, has remained in the area. In the film, the audience sees a lot of the things they would experience if they traveled to or spent time in rural Midwestern communities.
There is the saloon — which has been around for ages — often frequented during the day by groups of elderly men who relive memories past and talk about the current events of today. There is hilarious small-town gossip between old friends that takes place over coffee. There’s a local newspaper that will run an article about nothing more than a couple old Hawthornites stopping through.
You see, Payne isn’t mocking Midwesterners — heck, he’s from Omaha, and the film’s screenwriter, Bob Nelson, was born in South Dakota. Rather, Payne gives the rest of America an opportunity to peer into the rural Midwestern lifestyle. It’s different, sure, but just because rural life doesn’t coincide with urban life, that doesn’t make the film’s tone a mocking one.
Mocking can be funny, sure, but often times, the truth is even funnier, and with Nebraska that is very much the case. Just sit back, laugh, and enjoy: that’s what we Midwesterners are doing.
Grade: ★★★★ out of ★★★★★
MPAA Rating: R for some language
Runtime: 105 minutes