RIORI Presents Installment #203: Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska” (2013)

The Film…

The Players…

Bruce Dern, Will Forte, Bob Odenkirk, June Squibb and Stacy Keach, with Rance Howard, Devin Ratray, Tom Driscoll and Angela McEwan.

The Plot…

Congratulations Mr Woody Grant, you may already be a winner!

Nope, just a scam. Good son Dave tries to convince his boozy, space case of a dad Woody that his million dollar prize is just some pie in the sky sham. Happens all the time, especially with seniors. But Woody’s not having any of it. In his mind this is the first ever piece of good fortune that has come his way in his long, checkered life. And no one—no one—is going to keep him from claiming his rightful prize, be it friend, foe or family.

Dave kind of sympathizes with his dotty-headed dad’s quest for glory. Woody hasn’t had much going for him for the longest time, and dad seems so alive about the chance of being a winner. Despite all rational thought Dave does the honorable thing by Woody: take a road trip to claim his “prize,” if only to humor his daffy, lushy father.

So it’s off to Lincoln, Nebraska. Land of milk, Mickey’s big mouths and honey.

And probably a million dollar letdown.

The Rant…

Consider this installment a sort of companion piece to the Parental Guidance segment. Nebraska didn’t intend to be one. It kinda just happened, like how you found way more groceries in your shopping cart that you meant to buy come checkout. This time out it’s about my grandfather. My dad’s dad. Mostly. His wife was a yoga addict, if that matters. The following fits into the crevices some way, like that overflowing shopping cart with nary a coupon in sight. Let the journey begin.

In college I took this class at the behest of my girlfriend. It was a course in tai chi. Folks believe the practice is akin to yoga. Like yoga it is an exercise, but not really. Technically a martial art, tai chi was developed centuries ago by Tibetan monks who, after hours of genuflecting needed to stretch their legs. And arms. And everything actually. Nowadays the practice—at least to Westerners—is regarded as exercise. The style is related to the Chinese martial art wushu, but reallly slooowwed dooown. It focuses on stretching the muscles and joints at a very deliberate pace to, well, get the kinks out. If you were a monk and spent hours upon hours squatting lotus-like before the Buddha eventually you’d need a break and “crack your neck” if you follow.

My then g/f had an ample figure and I was a horndog. Yep, outré martial arts may equal smart sex? Show me the way.

By the mid 20th Century, the Chinese established 24 official postures constructing the tai chi set. I learned most of them; I’m clumsy and decidedly not Chinese. I learned the Chen style, the most popular (and simplest) form of the postures. It hurt. At first it was “this is new.” A last it was “this new thing hurts and makes me feel clumsy.” Still went on with it, though. Even in the late 90s some schools required a PE credit. Not kidding, and lunch didn’t count. I’d’ve had straight A’s then.

Our instructor inferred that tai chi with its 24 postures was akin to a journey. Actually this is pretty corny. All the roadsigns were there, but not all of us could complete the task of fording said postures because, hey, we’re all built differently. As a point due to genetic miscalculations I have duck feet like my father. The girlfriend had back problems, and don’t ask why (link to the Young Adult installment for any dirt, you lechers). We both could’ve done worse by the toss of the DNA dice. However we were assured that that wouldn’t have mattered because if you were diligent your body would adjust.

As the days rolled into weeks I started to get it. Not the postures per se; my spine still crackled like dry linguine before the boiling water treatment. That journey thing. Those who got it get it. Sure, tai chi was uncomfortable. That was the point. All exercise is uncomfortable, until you find a center. It’s like how figure skaters never seem to get dizzy. I became all too aware of my feet, and how I’d been misusing them. I discovered my posture sucked, and it was tough to straighten it out (if only for an hour). My joints were popping at such a rate I could’ve been an exotic dancer for the blind.

This was all a test on my body and my mind. And what the hell for? Exercise? Enlightenment? Goodie points in the sack? Perhaps all of that rot. In truth my tai chi lessons really helped much later on as a chef, what with all the hours of standing and reaching for things. I learned how to adjust and stave off fatigue and owies. It can be amazing to feel like Reed Richards for under a minute when the push comes and there is no neuropathy. Sounds heavy, dig? So are my feet.

With all college classes there came homework. Our teacher laid the class out with a PowerPoint demonstrating the postures. What they did. How they worked. Where they came from, etc. I tried at being a good student since I never got the whodiwatiz gold star. I just read the junk about the history of tai chi. Like I said it was the works of crampy monks. But with almost all things Far East there is an underlying principle defining what gets on the Travel Channel or not. Remember this: Andrew Zimmern is not sexy but ignore his husky knowledge that you secretly vie for bulut.

Sorry that. Moving on.

This may sound kinda of corny (prob’ because it is), but it was not my view of tai chi, but my sensei. She was—without surprise—calm, cool and collected as well as a bit of a flake. She would describe the postures as a “journey” right off, and quite the ardent fangirl she was was quite to remind us of the arts’ multiple benefits to our fitness. She even claimed at since practicing the postures for so many years that she had actually gained 2 inches in height. I would’ve been pleased to just lose 2 inches from my waistline.

BTW, who wants another beer?

But seriously, how’s that again? I’m not well-versed in anatomy, but aren’t most humans “fully grown” by, say, eighteen years of age? She was pushing forty. My pituitary gland fell into a coma at seventeen. Not like my grandma. She got her second wind around 70.

My Nana was hip to Eastern ways of thinking regarding life, love and leaving. She was a diabetic, but took no insulin. She was a vegetarian and controlled her blood sugar count the way that the Creator intended: smoothies and yellowjackets. She had a pill habit, and figured Eastern medicine would counteract her sins (that’s for another time, kids). When I saw her constrict her body during her yoga routine, eyes rolled into her sockets, arched spine, feet pointed out in ways that defied genetics made me worried. She looked constipated. I just wanted the spaghetti dinner.

Enter Ed. My dad’s dad who always went by Pop (save his spiritually minded spouse). Everyone called him Pop. Neighbors, friends, us, even my father. He was Pop, and friendly moniker for any age. He was born Edward; he earned Pop. A badge of pride in my worldview. My Nana preferred—demanded—that we called her Joan. Yogi Joan was Pop’s second wife, therefore me and my fam were not related to her. Every time I called her Nana she winced. That title was reserved for her non-goy family. We took it in stride since she insisted on family dinners.

Back to that tai chi thing. Joan planted a seed in my young mind. Maybe Eastern exercise works better than Western. I was, and am no way the picture of athletic health. The only time I ever stretch now is when the wireless PS controller tumbles under the bed. My Nana was the picture of a senior woman trying to keep fit. I’m presently made of beer and sandwiches, but as a youth I was curious. The curious thing about the martial arts—and, yes, yoga is one—as my tai chi instructor insisted is that’s all about a journey. Tai chi has its motions, as does yoga, and karate and judo and even parkour. Assemble them correctly, first slowly until fluid then you’re on your way to…where?

To the quick, Pop’s marriage to Joan has soured long before I was born. Pop was irascible, quick to rile as well to belt out laughter (often over inappropriate things), generous to a fault and a low tolerance for bullish*t. Why this never rubbed off on my father I’ll never understand. Ed was opinionated, defiantly non-PC and humorously prejudiced. What I mean by that is he casually used racial slurs a joke. When I was a pup I was tickled by him calling Chinese take-out as “gook food.” He loved Chinese take-out, if not just thumbing his nose at his earth-crunchy spouse. He tolerated the yoga, what with Joan’s daily rearranging of the living room to accommodate her mat. The woman would go through her motions even as we sat at the dinner table, somewhat patiently wait for her to get on with it. I could hear the pasta getting cold.

This happened only when me, my parents and my sisters came over for the day. Pop’s place was only a spit away so this scenario was common. What wasn’t as common as when the ‘rents plunked me and sibs at Pop’s doorstep to mind us while they raced off to do grown-up things. At these times, I was treated to lunch at the kitchen table with Pop endlessly perfecting his grilled cheese recipe. Haute cuisine to him (and little me) while Joan scoffed and waxed philosophical about man and God and law and her battling arthritis while supping on a smoothie made from what looked like oats and Satan’s vomit. I was grateful for the two grilled cheeses.

Even at that young age—shocker—I figured these two were not destined to be together. As an adult I learned about the nasty stories of drug abuse, infidelity and estrangement. With maturity came knowledge; despite all the yoga sessions and vile smoothies I knew that Pop and Joan’s journey together diverged even when I was a kid salivating over the scorned grilled cheese. A with her yoga, Joan never grew any taller, at least not in stature. She didn’t even grow closer. Quite the contrary. Like me trying to score brownie points with my rapidly eroding relationship with my strained girlfriend taking tai chi when it’s over, it’s over. And no mass of postures could ever reach an end.

I know: where the blue f*ck am I going with all this?

Here. My Pop was dotty as my memory serves. He was caught in a tender trap that happens in wedlock. Each other grows apart, and seeks social solace elsewhere. For Pop it was us, his grandkids. For Joan it was her isolating world and her vast Jewish clan. I always had a sense I really didn’t belong in her world. When we hung out with her daughter and granddaughters and they talked shop I never felt so much like an outsider goy then I did then. Don’t misunderstand me. I’m a folks-mensch, but prejudice is prejudice—unwitting or otherwise—and when Joan proclaimed at one time over dinner there, toasting with wine she should not have been drinking, “May the bird of paradise sh*t in our eyes!” I took succor in my NES I lugged along and plugged into the office TV. I did a speed run through Final Fantasy prime. I was ashamed to be there.

This was one of the more extreme examples of schism between Pop and Joan. On the whole I figured Pop had a raw deal, and dove into grandpa-hood with aplomb. When he came to visit us (often without Joan), he would smother me, my sisters and my dad with attention. It was an outlet you see. Time to cut loose and dance in the rain. He’s always took me to Kmart to buy be a new LEGO set and watch me build it and then play with it. He’s chase my sisters around in a proper “Gonna gotcha” style. He’d debate against and equally approve of what my dad was up to in the food service industry. He would sweat my mom about her real estate ventures (to compare, my mom’s dad never asked about her career). He used to watch Danger Mouse with me on Nick and found it as funny as I did. His rare trips from Maine to Pennsylvania were a raucous event, sans “responsibility.”

He was going through some motions. It wasn’t tai chi. It sure as sh*t wasn’t yoga. It was him trying again trying to keep in contact with his immediate, real family. He didn’t believe in divorce. He worked for the Red Cross all his life, so giving back was his motto. And even as he grew even more balmy as the years wore on, as long as his winnowing relationship with Joan wore on, Pop never gave up on his extended family. He never took a shine to Joan’s demonstrative yoga antics. He liked Milwaukee’s Best, gook food, LEGOs and humoring his grandkids. And laughing at my bad kid jokes.

In sum, all grandfathers are a little light in the luggage, but given the opportunity can  give you a little boost. Without posturing.

Just wait for an impromptu supper of perfect grilled cheeses…

The Story…

It sucks getting old, especially when there’s nothing to get old for.

One day Woody Grant (Dern) the ideal boozer and dreamer gets some hope in the mail. Something to live for. Something to do. A winning certificate claiming he’s the recipient of a million dollars!

Since that post ozone riding Woody found a reason to be, and by wit and/or grit he’s gotta get to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim his stake. This scheme. This trap.

Good son Dave (Forte) kinda gets his dad’s rapture. The old man’s been on the far fringe of reality for years. Lousy marriage. Distant father. Beer and more beer. All of it pining for relevance. “Bad son” Ross (Odenkirk) is too busy and too tired of keeping distant watch on Woody. Thanks to this “windfall” it’s Dave’s turn. Humor the man. Don’t let him kack off on too much beer.

Alright. So now Dave convinces himself that this trip to Nebraska might allow him some long earned time to reconnect with his spaztastic dad. Talk stuff over. Make some connection. And damn well keep his greedy, hick extended family at bay.

What would you do for a million dollars…?

The Review…

Like the Parental Guidance entry Nebraska bathes you in the wisdom of seniors, only with many left turns and a perverse definition of fatherhood. We ain’t saying goodnight to Alice here. More like get bent, kid.

Nebraska is a character piece and Dern is the pawn as well as king and queen. Despite the fact I regard the Oscars as an overblown dog and pony show sometimes those doddering fools in the Academy get a few things right respecting certain actors’ work. Dern won the Best Actor award back in 2013 for his portrayal of Woody. He had aged into an amazing, old coot akin to Dustin Hoffman’s turn as autistic Raymond who also earned an Oscar for Best Actor. Earned, not rewarded for a job well done. There is a difference.

Most roles like Woody’s are usually reserved by types like Morgan Freeman or Robert Duvall or even…well, Hoffman. Cagey characters, often with a bitter wit and a self-effacing countenance. That has been Dern’s stock and trade for decades, only now in the 21st Century his shuck and jive is now appreciated. No surprise I’ve been a fan of Dern’s work, from Freeman Lowell to Jason Staebler to Michael Lander to Mark Rumsfield to voice acting in From Up On Poppy Hill. Dern can be a real chameleon, which is why it took him so long to be honored with a black, faux gold statuette. The kind you could buy as a $20 bowling trophy somewhere. I have three. Dern never needed one.

Whislt watching Nebraska K noted that people never ask the right questions. It’s a keen observation beyond watching movies, and so true an observation. In my palsied worldview most folks aren’t really aware of their surroundings, or what they may contribute. Here’s a very gauche but apt example courtesy of many smartphone shots: the George Floyd tragedy. Did Officer Chauvin even consider his act of police brutality would go unnoticed in our age of social media? The entire f*cking planet sure didn’t think so. Call it hubris, call it awful, call it a spotlight. Hundreds of Officer Chauvins have been suffocating hundreds of George Floyd’s for centuries. In this day and age where practically everyone has a camera on their person, no one is beyond reproach for their actions and the ripple effect.

I’m not being reactionary here, but as for people not asking the right questions (of themselves) the fallout might be disastrous, or with this week’s film go horribly awry. Ostensibly, Nebraska is about Woody Grant’s quixotic quest to earn his wobbly fortune. Considering her observation, she was spot on, but also Woody’s journey was not about some stupid scam, either. Doddering Woody was making an attempt  to relearn who his family was and where he fit into the puzzle. The only member of his immediate family that gave a small sh*t about Woody’s well-being was Dave, although reluctantly. That’s how she gauged it and I could not argue. No one was asking the right questions about Woody’s motives, not even himself. It’s a good way to develop tension without much scrutiny. Like not asking the right questions.

Harkening back to the Rant Dern was uncannily like Pop. He even looked like him, with frazzled hair and ill-fitting glasses. Guess that’s really why I took as shine to Woody. Face it: our grandpas are just like teenagers, but now they have an arsenal of wisdom to both impart and not bother with. I killed Kennedy and I could kill you, too you little sh*t. You follow. Being and old codger grants one a lot of freedom to mouth off, spew half-baked theories about how the government is screwing us and eat your ice cream with a fork. Oh, grandpa. Dern was harmless, yet not to himself. Better him than Dave. Or Ross. Or the rest of his extended rapscallion family. Better share his potential riches with someone worthy, if share it at all.

This is what I mean regarding Dern’s portrayal of crusty Woody: resignation. Reminding me of my Pop, his golden years are nothing more than what non-seniors regard as golden. Bowie’s song said it best: “In walked luck and you looked in time. Never look back, walk tall, act fine.” Put on a brave face. All sh*ts gone to hell with you but don’t let on. Like with my Pop’s explosive sense of humor, Woody’s passive aggressiveness if his only way or gaining a higher ground. He may be an ancient but he ain’t stupid and he still matters. If only for himself. Grant knew what the deal was and just didn’t give a hoot. Whatever stuck to the wall on this trip.

Back to the film in practice. Woody Grant: sideshow philosopher king. The curious thing about Dern’s role is that it’s pretty straightforward, despite his loony old man schtick with the BAC beyond 8.0 and demanding a handout. Like all good character studies the lead doesn’t lead the story. It’s the supporting cast as fuel that drives the engine of insanity. In a character dramas, all the best have engaging and/or vibrant backing actors, which gracefully allow the lead to lead with just the right amount of prodding. To put it this way: you ever notice how the Oscar Best Picture award almost always earns the award for Best Editing also? Films are not shot sequentially; scenes are patched together by the editor to make a cohesive narrative. Same with the supporting cast in a character drama. They can act as a microscope focusing on the lead’s role. Movies don’t use spotlights after all. They use supports.


Why is it that most SNL alumni do so well with dramas? Consider Dan Ackroyd in Driving Miss Daisy, or Bill Murray in Lost In Translation, or even Robert Downey, Jr for his turn in the biopic Chaplin, which earned him a BAFTA award (the thinking person’s Oscar). It’s harder to be funny than serious. As Woody’s oracle Will Forte’s Dave was a very solid anchor which kept the story on an open track, despite how often Dern tried to sabotage it. Barring the blundered scheme of stealing back Ed’s compressor, Forte was “the good son.” He knew this award scheme was a canard, but would rather have his screwy dad entertain some fantasy, with very little irony. In some aspect, Forte slightly stole the show by not giving an inch as the fall guy. To the quick, Forte had this constant, dreamy look of “Why me?” And have this shamefaced “kid” learn to smile even under Woody’s watch? Well, it’s hella funny in spite of the situation. Forte didn’t get much of a nod for his work on Nebraska, and that’s a shame. I’m not for award ceremonies in body quite so in spirit. He did get some respect from the National Board of Review, but let’s face it the NBR is a non-profit and therefore not sexy enough to get any kudos on TMZ. Disregarding the snark a quiet, honest award is a lot better than glitz, and Forte’s portrayal of uncomfortable and beleaguered Dave was a far cry from being “10-1” on SNL. Meaning his stuff there was so bizarre the skits were shunted to the end of the show. That says something about his reserved yet about to burst role in Nebraska. I wish I knew what.

Dern’s permanent bewilderment belied a certain need. Nebraska is a skewed road movie reflected by the ramshackle direction. Nothing is gonna go well. We learn that Woody has always been trying to fill some hole in his life. He isn’t truly spacy, just numb and indifferent so people would just leave him alone asking other questions. After a lifetime of drifting, Woody has quietly understood his life has been wasting away, bottle by bottle, and just doesn’t want his drifting on his clan anymore, especially sons Ross and Dave in particular. As I mentioned about my Pop, he put a brave face on for me and my sibs (and maybe even my dad) telling all to often with maximum volume everything is okay. Dern’s Woody is terribly relatable, since we’ve all encountered someone like this regardless of age. Just behind the jocular nature belies necessary therapy. I mention all this because, well hell, desperation was what Dern expressed with aplomb, either drunk or funny. Both fell with a thud.

I found Nebraska‘s execution to be similar to the opening scenes of Kenneth Logeran’s Manchester By The Sea. The story follows Casey Affleck’s character hang himself with his own mistakes. To the quick the opening is about how handyman Casey has to deal with a tenant’s leaky faucet, both navel-gazing, observing no fix and an ambitious repair (which we know will happen eventually, which ain’t the point. Duh). It was all a heavy meditation on…nothing. It was allegory within the film proper and the outcome didn’t matter. Woody’s ozone trips and exercising his arm meant nothing to the meat of the matter. He like Affleck only wanted recognition beyond their assignments. Hey, I got a story for ya. Wanna hear?

Nope. Not now. Fix the pipe and/or stop drinking and trying to drive.

In the endgame Nebraska was all about self-respect…based against others’ respect, which is of course a sham (not unlike the winning ticket) As metaphor asked me out loud, “Why hasn’t Dave taken care of Woody’s bandage yet?” after several scenes passing from when he hurt himself? A good question. One I didn’t bother asking; it was just…there. I supposed it was just another scar of Woody being drunk, disorderly and disconnected. I soon learned, like the big reward all of it was a sham. The wrong thing for the right reason actually. Many, many unasked, necessary questions.

We’ll get to the soft, white underbelly of the plot in short order. Let’s talk technique first. Director Payne is known for his offbeat style. Better reigned in from Wes Anderson’s terminal quirkiness but also appreciative of the Cohen Brothers’ more accessible hodgepodges. Call his style rated-G Jarmusch. Do I sound snobbish? Sorry, but snobs are what ignorant folks call the informed. Please don’t log off.

Payne’s previous offerings have been offbeat en totoElection, About Schmidt, Sideways. Those of his films highlight the skills of being a director: coaxing characters out of actors who are mostly character actors and get sent on their collective ears. Dern’s muse has always been a bit of a charlatan. Scheming and left of center. An imp of the perverse. Always hinting but cards close to the chest. Ferris Bueller starring in a black comedy? Nicholson underplaying his role, not to mention being awkward and subdued? Giamatti as a raving gourmet drunk? Payne is good at overplaying his hand in equal parts letting his leads shine by letting them just sit still for a while. The same went for Forte and Odenkirk. Remember the SNL thing and Mr Show? Well, now consider the intermediary of the tricky Run And Jump and that spinoff Better Call Saul. Payne can calmly coax his actors to reel it in just enough to make them interesting while still being familiar to the audience. The same goes with the extras. Sure, with Nebraska they are all “characters” (EG: the twins, Woody’s wife, even his old squeeze), but they’re also antagonists. That’s where the intrigue comes from. Frame these norms against the interloper, then exploit him. In sum, it’s all about gimme, gimme, gimme. What Woody got that’s in it for all of us? It was never really the climax of Woody’s journey put a cap on things. From the first act on it was all denouement. The stakes were obvious, as well as crystal clear false. It was all about hiccups on the way down where the “wealth” came to play.

Let me clarify, as well furthering Payne’s technical shrewdness. Let me try and crawl out of mine own arse. Nebraska has really good cinematography. I mean really good. The cameras were aiming in very deliberate focus here. Took me a bit to catch on, but since Nebraska was a demented character study it made sense for every shot be centralized. There was precious little action in the periphery. No panning shots I could detect. Barring the driving scenes, everything was a close up. Why? Because Nebraska was a play, not a film. Despite being an ersatz road movie, Nebraska was nakedly theatrical. How the tragedy played out was akin to plays as films like 12 Angry Men, Sleuth and/or Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? Payne was fully aware of the inevitable tragic overtones of the story and couched them with wit and more than a little hubris and not to mention choosing black-and-white film (subtle as a fart at a funeral, that). Then considering Payne’s shrewdness agaIn the MacGuffin in Nebraska decidedly not the golden ticket to Wonka’s candy factory. No. Pay attention and keep your ears peeled. To Woody the sweepstakes was REDACTED money, and meant for doing right thing. Finally and for once. In the endgame you sympathize with Woody’s circumstance, despite the inevitable outcome. Perhaps as some sort of satori, it might be why Forte’s tight face had caught up to “Why not?” Watch it and you’ll get it. With Nebraska there’s a lot to get.

In sum, Nebraska was a classic take on a small movie with large intentions. You know, if you ask the right questions of yourself while viewing. Sure, not everything was what it seemed, but it didn’t seem like that from the outset. Like tai chi, yoga, the proper way to make a grilled cheese and an “ersatz” road movie it’s all about the journey and not necessarily where you arrive.

Sorry it got a bit long here; I had a lot to say and as to get. As inverse I should fess up that a limited engagement release like Nebraska doesn’t really fit The Standard. Guess this installment was bit of carrot-and-stick. Anyway any movie won’t score much cash if you had to GPS it to the proper theater. If you did then we might figure it was worth the trip.

It’s always about the trip. The trip. Isn’t it?

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Bruce Dern’s rightfully earned best role as everyone’s DP Pop. ‘Nuff said.

Woody’s Musings…

  • “Where’s my teeth?”
  • “Beer ain’t drinking.”
  • “You got a latrine?”
  • “You’re using the wrong wrench.”
  • “That’s not my carpenter!”
  • “Cuz I like to screw! And yer mother’s a Catholic!”
  • “The barn’s still standing…”
  • “That’s not my compressor!”
  • “I just wanted to leave you something…”
  • “Hah?”
  • “These aren’t my teeth!”

The Next Time…

Okay guys. It’s Easter time. Best we cut a movie about the Big Bunny. C’mon now, Hop to it!


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