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Oscar Review: NEBRASKA

Witney is giving odds on – and impressions of – the nine films nominated for the Best Picture Oscars this year. Today, he will look at the film he considers the second most baffling nominee, Alexander Payne’s Nebraska.

Alexander Payne’s movies are all about slow build. Like About Schmidt and The Descendants, his Nebraska all boils down to the very last scene. A put-upon recently-single fellow in Montana (Will Forte) learns that his near-senile father (Bruce Dern) is determined to travel to Nebraska to pick up a million-dollar prize that he assumes he won from the a Publisher’s Clearing House letter. The promise of a million dollars stirs up animosity and imagined debts (as it would) from Dern’s small-town family and friends (represented by wife June Squibb and colleague Stacy Keach). But it’s not until our hero learns what he can do to help his father than everything comes to a head, and the final scene in the film is a tear-jerking moment of small triumph. It’s as good as the tears in Schmidt or the couch cuddling in The Descendants.

I would argue that Nebraska – while just as honest and just as twee as Payne’s other films – is not as good as Schmidt or The Descendants, although it still possesses the director’s greatest strengths. Payne is very good at creating pseudo-pathetic, largely boring but very relatable small town everymen, who comically endure a long string of small humiliations on their way to ultimate emotional redemption (excepting the selfish teacher in his almost-there Election) whose tiny undocumented-by-life catharses end up being hugely important moments. His films are all very mannered comedies that invite us to laugh (gently) at and with the heroes.


And while I appreciate his wry sense of humor, Nebraska felt a mite exploitative to me. I understand that it was an accurate depiction of real-world small-town living (indeed, Payne himself is from Nebraska, calling on his real-life experiences), and I appreciate the accuracy and sensitivity that goes into lionizing a class of people often pegged as ordinary by us hoity-toity city dwellers, but I felt that Payne was inviting us to laugh perhaps a little bit too mockingly at the the foibles of yokels. Look at these folks in the sticks. They only have one main drag. Can you believe it? Although I admit that I was perhaps being a little too sensitive to this; Clearly, Payne is trying to depict something very immediately important to him. Family secrets abound in this broad universe either way, and the ultimate uncovering of emotional truths is what really matters.

Much has been made of the Oscar-nominated performance of June Squibb, Bruce Dern’s trash-talking 83-year-old wife, but I feel her character was the weakest part of Nebraska. I think the Academy must have a soft spot for trash-talking old ladies, as her character is a broad and unbelievable comic presence in an otherwise truth-laden story. I appreciate the daring it takes to flash one’s genitals at the gravestone of a long-spurned lover, but Squibb seems ill-suited to such material. If you’re going to have a near-slapstick character, you need a slapstick actress. Cloris Leachman would have knocked this role out of the park.


I’m a little baffled as to why this film was nominated for Best Picture. It’s a very good film, the deliberately drab black-and-white aesthetic is appealing, and I do love Payne’s emotional slow-burn techniques. But its relative quaintness and gentleness seem small when compared to much flashier films like 12 Years a Slave and American Hustle. It didn’t, upon some reflection, make too many critical top-10 lists. It must have been that final scene, the one moment of quiet triumph wherein both father and son can finally prove to the world that they are capable of rising above. Also, The Academy has a love for Payne, one of the clearer voices in this generation’s team of filmmakers.

Odds to win: 75:1

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  1. Steve says:

    Okay so now I will tell you the truth since I’m a real critic..
    I been doing this for a couple of weeks now basically just to promote myself and because it’s fun so I leave comments in other “writers’ comments section..It’s a game for me
    Nebraska is not the best movie of the year….
    Who cares who they give the oscar to since those awards are bought.
    The best movie should come down to Out of The Furnace and Wolf of Wall Street… Those were the best movies of 2013. I think Out of the Furnace wins just because Wolf was way too long. American Hustle was one of the worst movies I seen all year. It was painfully boring

  2. Nate says:

    Count me with those who like this movie a LOT more than the reviewer. June Squibb’s character wasn’t the least bit senile, she was just a grumpy old woman with a tendency to both swear and overshare. She’d established that pretty well before the big laugh scene of lifting her skirt so that the moment just seemed funny and extreme rather than in any way out of character or insane. Casting someone like Chloris Leachman in that part would have turned it into a cartoon, and been totally inappropriate. If I was handing out the Best Supporting Actress Oscar, June would win it over Jennifer Lawrence in a walk.

    I’d say without any reservations or caveats that this was the best movie that I saw this year (although admittedly I’ve missed some of the big ones). The portraits of life in a dying small town were painfully accurate and sensitive, in my opinion, and the way that people’s positivity and praise turned to jealousy and self-interest seemed all too realistic even with over-drawn comedic characters like the two chubby cousins. The acting was all pretty much perfect, and the stark beauty of the high plains just saturated nearly every shot. I think you’re probably right about the odds, but I wish that I weren’t.

  3. Troup says:

    I dont think he made of small town people in this movie. I came from a small town where everyone knows everyone else. A lot of the stuff in this film happens all the time. I found the movie great mostly because I know someone that is like the character depicted. The scene where the brothers just talk about an old car happens every christmas for me.
    I found this more enjoyable than American Hustle as a drama-comedy. Probably because it is more relatable to me and its a comedy where American Hustle is just a drama.