I was hesitant to see Alexander Payne's new film "Nebraska" when it first came out. While I had really loved Payne's film "About Schmidt" and enjoyed "Sideways", I had absolutely loathed his last film "The Descendants". It is difficult for me to put into words how awful I found this film to be. The fact that critics and movie-goers alike both loved the film and it received all sorts of nominations and awards not only baffled me but irritated me. My conclusion as to the glowing reception the film received was that people simply gave Payne the benefit of the artistic doubt and thought that it was great simply because HE made it. I worried that "Nebraska" would be a similar experience of not judging a work of art on the art itself but rather on the resume of the artist who made it. Thankfully, I was wrong.
I really enjoyed "Nebraska". Like many of Payne's films it is a road picture, and it has a somewhat ornery and unlikable leading man making the hero's journey. In "Nebraska" that ornery and unlikable leading man is Bruce Dern. He is really terrific. He plays a somewhat senile and dementia addled alcoholic old man. He plays his senility and confusion with such a humanity, specificity and fullness that you can't help but wonder if he isn't acting at all. Thankfully he is acting, of course, and brilliantly. It is without a doubt one of the best performances of his long career.
Dern also uses his considerable gravitas as an actor to keep the film grounded. The trouble with Alexander Payne films is that they can at times spiral off into the orbit of their own quirkiness and self satisfaction. That was the problem with "The Descendants". As much as I like George Clooney, he simply doesn't bring the skill, weight and gravity to a role that someone like Bruce Dern, Paul Giamatti or Jack Nicholson would. "The Descendants" failed as a film because Clooney is ill-equipped to carry a film LIKE THAT. Instead of the film being a deeply dramatic story with a quirky fringe surrounding it and quirky characters inhabiting some of it, it became a quirky film at it's core which tried to be dramatic but didn't have the weight at it's center to hold that type of emotion or power. "Nebraska" could have easily suffered the same fate if not for Bruce Dern's performance.
Dern's performance is similar in greatness to Jack Nicholson's in Payne's "About Schmidt", which in my opinion was the best performance of Nichoson's later career, much better than his Academy Award winning performance in "As Good As it Gets". Like Dern in "Nebraska", Nicholson uses his heavyweight talents, skills and status to keep "About Schmidt" grounded and real while the quirkiness swirls and storms around him.
The supporting actors, including Will Forte, June Squibb and Stacey Keach are all very good, as are all the actors in smaller parts, who seem to be unknown local hires from Nebraska. Forte in particular does a very good job of playing it straight and not falling into the trap of relying on his substantial comedy chops. You can at times see Forte struggle against his comedic instincts, but he wins that battle and gives a very genuine and good performance. Squibb plays the sassy old lady character with glee, and she is good at it, although the character itself comes dangerously close too veering to far into her oddness and taking the film with it, but thankfully both Dern and Forte are there to pull her back and the film is better for it.
"Nebraska" is shot in black and white, and that decision pays huge dividends. The black and white is beautiful and gives the film a certain air of depth, timelessness and isolation that it might not have had if shot in color. The cold and vast spaces of the great midwest are highlighted and used effectively as reflections of the inner world of the characters and their relationships with each other by the use of black and white.
In conclusion, I really liked "Nebraska" and thought Bruce Dern was outstanding. I recommend you go see it. If you liked "About Schmidt" you'll like "Nebraska". If you liked "The Descendants"…then I have nothing to say to you. Absolutely nothing.