“Nebraska,” the movie: Hurray for director Alexander Payne, actors Bruce Dern, June Squibb and Will Forte, and especially screenwriter Bob Nelson. (And let’s not forget musician/composer Mark Orton.)
Nelson’s story depicts a slice of American pie with a sideways view as the ingredients ooze out from under the crusty shell. Woody Grant, an aging mechanic living in Billings, Montana, believes he has won a $1 million sweepstakes and must get to Lincoln, Nebraska, to claim his prize—even if he has to walk—because he “can’t trust the mail.”
After a brow beating from his foul-mouthed wife (June Squibb), Woody’s son (Will Forte) offers to drive Woody to Lincoln just to shut him up. The road trip takes on a life of its own when they stop off in a fictional prairie town to visit Woody’s brother.
The ensuing encounters with family members and old friends provide the laughs and poignancy for this ultimately heart-warming story that draws back the curtains on personalities we all have encountered (or are likely to) in our own lives.
What’s more, the movie did not require a single explosion or car crash (or bare boobies), while the black-and-white images provide an added dimension that accent the story line. (But why do filmmakers insist on showing men standing at a roadside taking a pee? In this case, twice. Is it a juvenile attempt at humor? Not many teens are likely to sit through this movie’s lanquid stroll.)
Nelson, 57, lives on Whidbey Island in Washington State and claims the Seattle suburb of Kent as his home town. But he was born in Yankton, South Dakota, and told the AP he often visited relatives in a small Nebraska town where his parents grew up. He modeled the Dern character after his own father.
Writers take note
This simple yet touching story shines as it delves into the quirks and foibles that, for better or worse, characterize humans, diving deeper into the characters’ disquieted lives as the story unfolds. The spare but forceful dialogue provides insight that needs no further narrative.
Nelson has been nominated for an Academy Award for best original screenplay, but he did not reach this lofty height overnight. He wrote the screenplay more than a decade ago, following the cancellation of the long-running Seattle TV show, “Almost Live,” for which he wrote and acted. Payne optioned the script, but the production went to the back burner while he made “Sideways” and “The Descendants.”
In all, the movie received six nominations, including best picture, director, actor, supporting actress, and cinematography. At the Cannes Film Festival last year, Dern won a best-actor award for his role in the movie.
It could have been nominated as well for best soundtrack (or whatever they call the award). Mark Orton’s haunting melodies perfectly illuminated the movie’s broad vistas and reflected the at-times bittersweet moments in the story. Mind you, the trumpet send-up of spaghetti Western themes left me chuckling. Orton’s Tin Hat Trio—with Carla Kihlstedt on fiddle, Rob Burger on accordion (no jokes, please), and Orton on guitar and banjo—performed the music. [(somewhat stuffy) Review by New York Music Daily.]
“Nebraska” deserves to fare well in the upcoming Oscars. I’d especially like to see it and Nelson get the screenplay award.