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Broken Heartland

by Ross Douthat

A review of Nebraska

I was not entirely looking forward to Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, mostly because I worried that the movie, about an old man taking stock of his life on a Plains-state road trip, sounded an awful lot like Payne’s last movie about an old man taking stock of his life on a Plains-state road trip — 2002’s About Schmidt, in which Jack Nicholson delivered a performance so depressing that the movie theaters should have spiked their sodas with Wellbutrin.

Payne has a unique style — a blend of comedy and tragedy, satire and realism — that tends to sharpen, in good ways and bad, when the setting is his native heartland. (He was born in Omaha, and still keeps a home there today.) Sometimes this sharpening produces something peerless, like Election, his near-perfect 1999 film about the battle for a high-school presidency. But sometimes it leaves a nasty aftertaste — a mix of condescension, disappointment, and misanthropy that can feel like the too-harsh judgment of a made-good native son.

Partway through Nebraska, I thought we were headed for exactly that kind of place — somewhere even darker and danker than About Schmidt, not least because this movie is shot in a clinical, depressing black-and-white. A bone-deep unhappiness permeates the first half of the film — the unhappiness of Bruce Dern’s Woody Grant, a seventysomething alcoholic sliding into dementia; of his long-suffering wife Kate (June Squibb), alternating beratings and complaints; and of his younger son, David (Will Forte, late of Saturday Night Live, and a typical Payne casting-against-type), a midlife mediocrity with a dead-end job selling audio equipment and a girlfriend, plain and heavyset, who’s just dumped him because he won’t commit.

The Grants now live in Billings, Mont., but they hail from a small town in Nebraska, Hawthorne, where Woody’s father farmed and Woody himself once kept an auto-repair shop. And Hawthorne is where they all end up, thanks to the half-senile Woody’s conviction that a Publishers Clearing House–style come-on is really a million-dollar-winning lottery ticket. This delusion inspires him to set out on foot, repeatedly and hopelessly, for the sweepstakes headquarters in Lincoln, until the exasperated David finally agrees to drive him there — hoping to snap him out of the delusion, to snap himself out of his own torpor, and perhaps, just perhaps, to make some last connection with a father slipping away into the dark.

The road trip goes badly: Woody is recessive, embittered, unreachable, with nothing good to say about his life, no interest in his son’s attempts at kindness. He gets stone-drunk somewhere in South Dakota and ends up in a hospital, at which point David decides to let him recuperate at his brother’s home in Hawthorne, in the bosom of the extended Grant clan. Kate joins them via Greyhound bus, and their older son, a semi-successful TV reporter (Bob Odenkirk), comes down for the weekend as well. But when they arrive, they find a clan, and a town, that have bought completely into Woody’s million-dollar fantasy — simultaneously hailing him as a local hero and circling him like sharks.

This confusion sounds like the plot of a giddy screwball comedy, but while Nebraska has laughs throughout, everything about the setup is pitch-black. Hawthorne is recession-ravaged; Woody’s extended family are taciturn, unpleasant, or (in the case of his heavyset nephews, both unemployed and one on probation for sexual assault) simply stupid; his “old friend” and former business partner Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach) is sinister behind the bonhomie. The performances are wonderful — Dern is getting all kinds of deserved praise, and the supporting cast matches his standard — but for a time it seems as if they’re all just in the service of the grimmest possible depiction of intergenerational unhappiness and heartland decline.

But then comes a small scene in the Hawthorne newspaper office, where David meets the paper’s editor (Angela McEwan), an old flame of his father’s whose own life has actually been happy, and who remembers Woody warmly, nostalgically, and perceptively, as someone somewhat different from the man David thinks he knows. This scene works as a kind of crack in the story, through which faint rays can enter, casting everything we’ve seen in a somewhat more forgiving light.

The change doesn’t alter Woody’s essential characteristics — he remains crabbed, inaccessible, half-deluded, overfond of drink. There is no sudden epiphany or transformation, just a gradual reorientation of how we see his life, his family, his wife, his past. It isn’t that he ceases to be the person we’ve followed through the movie’s grim first half, but rather that we come to see a little better how that person came to be — and through that understanding, to respect, admire, forgive.

None of this eliminates the movie’s tragic element: Nebraska remains, at its heart, a story about an unsuccessful, disappointed life. But it’s a story that also shows that there can be love and grace even in a life that doesn’t turn out as one would hope, and that such a disappointment need not be the last or only word on something as complicated as the human heart.

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