Posted February 2, 2014 by William Dunmyer in Dramedy

Nebraska: Devoid of Ideas

It is astonishing that Nebraska received an Oscar nomination as Best Picture. It may go down in history as the worst film ever to receive a Best Picture nomination.

The major problem is that the script has no content. No ideas whatsoever. All we get is realistic imagery of uneducated people walking around doing nothing and saying nothing. Andy Warhol’s Empire had more content. Nebraska gives new meaning to the term sleep-inducing.

Sometimes a thin script can be turned into something interesting by a talented director, who fills up the empty spaces in the script with moody, intriguing cinematography that communicates something. But not here. Director Alexander Payne (Sideways, The Descendants) conveys nothing with his flat, pedestrian direction. Payne most certainly now ranks as the most over-rated filmmaker in America. For him to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Director for his work on Nebraska boggles the mind.

The only meaningful directorial decision Payne made was to shoot in black-and-white. But even that is a rather thin move at this point. Black-and-white was used so many times by top-notch directors in the 70’s and 80’s that isn’t it a cliche now? Now it’s more derivative than innovative, giving the impression that a director is trying to make the film look like a work of art, rather than be a work of art. It’s artsy-looking window dressing to tart up a paper-thin script and fool middlebrow critics into thinking they are seeing a real work of art.

Nebraska does accurately depict the lives of semi-educated rural folks. I will give it that. You don’t get the sense you are watching actors. You really feel that you are in the state of Nebraska, looking at ordinary Nebraskans, in all their uneducated glory.

But the film doesn’t have a blessed thing to say about these characters who look so real. Is that all we reward filmmakers for, making the environment look real? Nebraska just shows rural people walking around — saying little, doing nothing. It’s like going to a small town, setting a camera on a tripod, and filming pedestrians as they walk by.

Will Forte (best known for his work on Saturday Night Live) plays a  man who lives in Montana near his elderly parents. He goes on a road trip with his cantankerous, monosyllabic, and increasingly delusional father, in a thin performance by legendary screen actor Bruce Dern. All Dern really does in the role is look catatonic.

Along for part of the ride is their bitter, unhappy wife/mother, played colorfully by eightysomething character actor June Squibb. Mom never stops scolding and belittling her husband in one shrill tirade after another.

Dad has received a notice from a Publishers’ Clearinghouse-type organization, saying that he may have won a million dollars. First of all, he believes that he has won. Second of all, he believes he must appear in person at their office in Nebraska to receive his winnings. Because he cannot drive and no one in his family will drive him, he makes several attempts to walk to the Publishers’ Clearinghouse office in Nebraska, which is several hundred miles from his home.

One of his sons (Forte) eventually agrees to drive him to Nebraska, and they embark on the road trip. Eventually they do make it to the Clearinghouse office, but along the way they get sidetracked, stopping off to visit family and friends in Mom and Dad’s old hometown. Mom takes a bus to Nebraska and joins them for part of the road trip. Along the way we meet an endless parade of people whom Mom and Dad knew years ago, each and every one uninteresting in their own way.

There are some moderately funny interludes, mostly involving distant family members and friends from childhood trying to get a piece of Dad’s winnings. But this kind of affectionate parody of small-town life has been done a million times before. Nothing new or enlightening happens. After a while, you feel like you’re in the same kind of semi-catatonic stupor that Dad is in throughout the film, deadened by a film with no content.

William Dunmyer

William Dunmyer is a lifelong cinephile who fell in love with movies at about the age of 5. He lives in New York City.