Alexander Payne’s comedy-drama Nebraska is far from the sunny Hawaiian shores that set his last picture, the Oscar-winning The Descendants. The film’s trailer brings to mind the American independent cinema during the 1980s, especially the films of Wim Wenders and Jim Jarmusch, with their aimless protagonists and contemplative views of American life. The director is moving further away from big-name stars and the broad comedy that populated The Descendants though. There is a low-key approach here, with stark black-and-white photography and an ensemble of character actors.
Nebraska won its lead, Bruce Dern, a Best Actor Award when it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May. In the film, he plays Woody Grant, an aging father convinced that he has won a million-dollar sweepstakes after receiving a letter in the mail. Will Forte plays Dern’s son, David, who accompanies his father from Montana to Nebraska so that his father can retrieve his supposed winnings. Some poignant and awkward father-son bonding is bound to happen as the Grants trek through the Midwest, catching up with old family members and acquaintances.
Both actors are playing against type here: Dern is a far cry from the seedy villains he used to play in the 1960s and 1970s, while Forte seems to be bemused here, shedding his goofy comedic persona. Nebraska looks to be soul-searching work on the parts of both actors.
The trailer also showcases Payne’s return to the dark, pithy humour, Midwestern setting and themes of aging and regret that filled his early comedies, About Schmidt and Election. Rounding out the supporting cast is June Squibb (who played Jack Nicholson’s wife in About Schmidt) and the always-welcome Bob Odenkirk. Had Payne gone with his original choice for the David character, Bryan Cranston, we could have had a Breaking Bad reunion on our hands.
Nebraska opens in limited release on November 15, and will likely get an expansion as the awards season approaches.