Undoubtedly one of the most interesting films of the current awards season is Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, starring Bruce Dern, Will Forte, and June Squibb. Why is it so interesting? Well, mostly because of its mix of old and new. The film marks Will Forte’s first real foray into serious acting and even pulls Bob Odenkirk (as in, Saul Goodman from Breaking Bad) into a semi-serious role. On the other hand, Nebraska relies on Dern, who’s been out of the spotlight for some time, for its main role, and has now been nominated for an Oscar for Best Actor! It also goes full black-and-white on us.
Let’s get the black-and-white thing out of the way early: this is kind of ridiculous (even if it was done partially due to budget concerns). I understand that there can be artistic benefits of shooting a film in black-and-white. It shows off lighting and contrast, and it can emphasize the suffocating drabness of the Midwest’s landscapes. But if you ask me, the dull settings between Billings, Montana and Lincoln, Nebraska probably could have spoken for themselves. This caused the black-and-white to feel like a gimmick. Its main triumph was in showing off the excessive wispiness of Dern’s hair.
Now, on to the film itself. Here’s the plot: An aging, drunken Woody Grant (Dern) receives a scam letter in the mail, is convinced he won $1 million, and that he must get to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim his prize. When Woody keeps trying to take off and walk to Lincoln (from his home in Billings, Montana), his son David (Forte) agrees to drive him. Stopping in Woody’s childhood home on the way, the pair confront Woody’s past and gradually reconnect as father and son. At the same time, they’re coping with Woody’s need to find something to live for.
It seems like a silly premise, but in reality the idea of an elderly man jumping at money that seems to come out of nowhere probably isn’t so crazy. And in the case of Woody Grant, who is noted about 17 times throughout the film as being particularly susceptible to confusion, it makes quite a bit of sense, really, to dive for this sort of scam. That said, however, as the film progresses we’re increasingly unsure if Woody really cares about the $1 million itself, rather than what it might buy him, the status it gives him among his peers, or even merely the fact of having won something. More than anything, it seems to be the idea of having something to claim that seems to excite him.
So what’s the verdict? Well, to begin with, the Oscar buzz surrounding Nebraska seems a bit overplayed, and should it steal top awards from other contenders it would be a shame. Fortunately, if we’re going off of the early odds on top awards, this seems like a relative long shot. The special betting section at Betfair looks into the upcoming Oscar awards and it has Nebraska listed as an 89/1 long shot to take home Best Picture. Only Her and Captain Phillips have longer odds for the top award. Bruce Dern, meanwhile, is currently sitting at 41/1 odds for the Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role. Although, there are some who believe he has a “puncher’s chance” given his status as an industry vet. Additionally, he’s just a very respected Hollywood actor who’s had a revival of sorts through Nebraska.
It’s not that the film is poorly done by any means—or poorly acted. However, the film is ultimately rather dull, and for the stunt of doing it in black-and-white to steal Best Picture would be a shame. Similarly, if Dern’s role, which primarily consists of aimless wandering and mumbling, is mistaken for one full of subtle depth and expertise, it’s conceivable that the role could steal an Oscar from a candidate (say, Leonardo DiCaprio, Chiwetel Ejiofor, or Matthew McConaughey) who, at least this time around, would be far more deserving.
Ultimately, the verdict is that this film has a certain charm, and some perfectly strong performances. But its status as an Oscar contender seems a bit pretentious. Imagine a black-and-white Montana, South Dakota, or Nebraska landscape with an old man walking slowly around while his son follows him, impatient and exasperated, and you’ve essentially seen Nebraska. There are nice messages mixed in (personal connection trumping monetary reward, connecting with family), and it has its funny moments. But all in all, it’s forgettable.