Bruce Dern was one of the finest actors of the 60s
and 70s. However, somehow he never quite received the notice of some of his
contemporaries such as Jack Nicholson, Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Ryan
O'Neal, Michael Caine and Warren Beatty. That indignity has continued and
intensified into old age – while Nicholson, Hoffman, Pacino and Caine still
work with regularity, Beatty does not work often by choice and O'Neal
is at the very least a tabloid favorite – Dern has mostly been well off the
pop culture radar.
Dern has quietly continued working, though, often in
indies and straight-to-video cheapies. The last time I personally saw him
was in the sad supporting role of a New Orleans gangster boss in Inside
Out, the 2011 vanity production for WWE wrestler Paul “Triple H”
Levesque. Dern was just fine in the role, but it still seemed a huge waste
Therefore, while it is difficult to call Nebraska
a career-defining role for Dern – just because he did so much fine work
in his heyday – it should most certainly be a career-resurrecting role.
Much like Clint Eastwood's Grand Am, Caine's Is Anybody There?
and Nicholson's About Schmidt (also by Nebraska director
Alexander Payne), Nebraska requires a selfless and total immersion
into a character that is elderly and cantankerous and still make the
The performance is quietly stunning, an award-worthy
tour de force in a film which has more than its share of fine acting.
And if there is any fairness in the world at all,
it will usher in an interesting final phase in Dern's career.
Filmed in stunning black and white, Nebraska
is at once as chilly and drab as the state which gives the movie its name
and at the same time surprisingly vital, loving and heart-touching. You
forget how affecting monochromatic cinematography could be, even though it
was periodically used for effect in the 70s and 80s for stuff like Paper
Moon, Young Frankenstein and Raging Bull. It has fallen out of
favor in recent decades (probably because they say that now, despite the
fact that it seems counter-intuitive, black and white filmmaking (and film)
is significantly more expensive that color.
I'm not sure the world needs a steady diet of black
and white, however this film is a strong reminder how well it works in some
Dern plays Woody Grant, an unkempt and angry older
man, a casual alcoholic who appears to be in the early stages of dementia.
However, he still has many moments of clarity as well. He has received one
of those mail fliers which screams out "You have won $1 million dollars" and
then says in smaller letters "If you have the winning numbers." Despite the
fact that he lives in Billings, MT, Woody decides that he will walk to the
contest people's offices in Lincoln, NE to collect his winnings.
The police keep bringing Woody back to his family.
They are trying to deal with Woody, but each has their own crap going.
There is his cantankerous wife Kate (June Squibb in a role that is severely
off-putting until in the end you realize she has somehow won you over). His
older son Ross (Bob Odenkirk) is a small-time TV news anchor just getting
what he hopes may finally be his big break. His youngest son David (Will
Forte) is a fellow lost soul who is stuck in a dead-end job selling stereos,
has recently been dumped by his girlfriend (frankly, he is probably a bit to
good for her) and a dingy apartment.
The family tries to explain to Woody that the
contest is the scam, but he keeps breaking away to walk across country.
Finally David realizes that he needs a bit of time away himself, and agrees
to drive his dad – who he was always somewhat estranged from – to Nebraska.
Beyond the time off, he hopes to spend a little time with his dad, who was
always so cut off emotionally and now obviously does not have much time
David is an eye-opening performance by former
Saturday Night Live cast member Forte. Forte's previous film work was
along the much more pedestrian lines of MacGruber, The Watch, Rock of
Ages, The Slammin' Salmon and That's My Boy. David is something
of the straight man in this situation, but Forte brings surprising
soulfulness and craft to the more reactive role.
Director Alexander Payne is a specialist in this
kind of film – real life addressed as a quiet merge of quiet comedy and
heart-rending drama. In recent years Payne
has reaped benefits from his novelist's eye in Sideways, The Descendents
and the aforementioned About Schmidt. Unlike those films,
Nebraska was not also written by Payne, but Bob Nelson's subtly
profound screenplay is right in the filmmaker's wheelhouse.
Nebraska is a triumph, and another feather in Payne's hat.
it only starts a Bruce Dern resurgence, life will be golden.
Jay S. Jacobs
Copyright ©2014 PopEntertainment.com.
All rights reserved. Posted: February 25, 2014.