Here's a canned synopsis of the film Nebraska:
After receiving a sweepstakes letter in the mail, a cantankerous father thinks he's struck it rich, and wrangles his son into taking a road trip to claim the fortune. Shot in black and white across four states, Nebraska tells the stories of family life in the heartland of America.Sound pretty dull, huh?
To begin with, why would you want to watch a back-and-white movie set amidst the great plains about a grouchy old coot who "wrangles" his son into a dreary road trip and who also intimidates other members of his family? And who the hell cares about "family life in the heartland of America?"
If that's what you're thinking, you'd better think again.
Because the father doesn't really "wrangle" the son into the trip. Instead, the son offers to take the father on the journey to prove that he hasn't won the sweepstakes after all. And this story of "family life in the heartland" is really a story about America -- a very poignant, revealing, thought-provoking and extraordinarily well-written and well-acted story.
In fact, this is clearly one of the best movies of the year.
From director Alexander Payne with a wonderful original screenplay from newcomer Bob Nelson, this is Payne's fourth film set in Nebraska and it follows 2002's triumphant About Schmidt.
Payne lets the faces and the movements of his characters (and his actors) do all the work in this story. So, with the barest, simplest dialogue the fine cast (led by Oscar nominee Bruce Dern) does an outstanding job. Even in black and white Dern's piercing blue eyes grab you and force you to watch this hopscotched journey -- one last voyage of discovery for a halting, tight-lipped father and a sensitive, generous, inquisitive son. And Will Forte plays the son with understanding and devotion but without a shred of sentimentality. As the mother, Jane Squibb gives a performance that is worthy of a supporting actress Oscar nomination. One wonders why she was not selected for that honor.
Here's a snippet of dialogue between Squibb and Forte as the mother and son:
Kate Grant: That's Ed Pegram singing.The Ed Pegram that's referred to in this scene is played by veteran actor Stacy Keach in a choice character role and he does a fine job as well.
Kate Grant: Did you know that he was always trying to get in my bloomers?
David Grant: Jesus Mom! Was the whole town trying to seduce you?
Kate Grant: These boys grow up staring at the rear ends of cows and pigs, it's only natural that a real woman will get them chafing their pants.
Does Bruce Dern ever get to claim his sweepstakes winning? Well, we're not telling.
But we can tell you that mysteries are uncovered, some legends are brought back to life and a few dreams actually do come true in this movie.
And that last part is surprising when you consider the overriding tone of this film which only reflects the current state of the nation.
Because, like we said - in the end, Nebraska is really about America -- an America of lost or forgotten dreams, fragmented families, abandoned small towns and aimless young men. This is a place where cynicism has crushed innocence and anticipation, where purposefulness and a willingness to seize the day have been replaced by dread and longing.
Indeed, even an eternal optimist like Ronald Reagan might find it hard to conjure up a bit of sunshine amidst such bleakness.
But remember, it was the willingness to conquer an untamed, endlessly bleak, unforgiving landscape in the first place that made us what Michael Medved still calls "the greatest nation on God's green earth."