Some movies are huge. I don't mean in popularity, but in the sheer epic scale of them. These are the kinds of movies we associate with the summer movie season. They are sometimes referred to as "popcorn movies" because their plots and character development often involve as much thought as it takes to dump loads and loads of "buttery topping" on a bucket full of popcorn. These movies contain massive amounts of expensive computer generated images and, of course, explosions which are often part of those computer generated images. Nebraska, the new film from director Alexander Payne, has none of these qualities. You might say that Nebraska is the anti-popcorn movie.
The first thing you may notice about Nebraska is that it is in black and white. Once color was introduced into the world of cinema there really wasn't much need for any black and white films. It is rare these days to see a black and white movie. Usually, a movie is in black and white due to budget reasons such as with Clerks or for style reasons such as with Sin City. I'm not really sure why the makers of Nebraska decided to go with black and white on this film, but it really does set the tone for what is about to come in the movie. Nebraska is a less is more kind of film so it is fitting that they went with the least amount of colors possible for this movie.
Nebraska is the story of a father and his son. The father, Woody Grant, is a barely functioning alcoholic who has just received a letter telling him he may have won a million dollars. All he has to do is go to Lincoln, Nebraska to see if he won. Enter David Grant, his son, who sees the determination his father has in collecting his winnings and decides he will drive his father from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska. Of course, Woody hasn't actually been confirmed to have won anything yet so there may be no money to actually collect.
Throughout the movie the real reason that David takes his father on this trip becomes clear. David just wants to spend some time with his father. After all, who knows how much more time he will have with him? So David and Woody set out on their journey to Nebraska and the movie earns its title.
The journey of Nebraska is filled with insights into the past of Woody as he and his son travel through the town in which he used to live. There, he reunites with family and old friends (or are they enemies?) and makes potential new friends (enemies) who are excited to see a "millionaire" come through their town. Through these people we learn, little by little, more about the past life of Woody Grant. These tales of Woody told by his various acquaintances contribute to the drama portion of this film. There is remorse at the loss of past possible paths on the road of life that were not taken and sadness towards the way life seems to be headed for Woody. David is the vessel through which we really get to feel a lot of this drama as he discovers things about his father that he never knew. Nebraska is never too dramatic, however. It is a bit of a comedy as well.
The comedy in Nebraska comes from the reactions and interactions of the various characters in the film. The comedic moments are distributed nicely and evenly amongst the dramatic moments. As the character of David is played by former Saturday Night Live cast member and Macgruber star Will Forte and his brother is played by Mr. Show star Bob Odenkirk it is not a surprise that the film has a comedic touch. However, don't expect the kind of big comedic moments that you would get out of a movie like Macgruber.
Nebraska is a small movie in nearly every way. The length of the movie is 115 minutes, which isn't too small, but everything else in the movie comes in small sizes. The drama is there, but it is never very big. It is all small moments that are quietly reacted to by the characters in the film. There are no big speeches, loud emotions, or huge actions from the characters in Nebraska. The comedy is much the same way. It is all small doses of comedic dialogue and moments that come and go throughout the film.
Perhaps the best example of the scale of Nebraska comes in its ending. The movie comes to a close on a moment that is so small that it almost seems insignificant. This moment is, however, treated as if it is the most important thing to ever happen in the world and in the context of the rest of the movie, it actually is. For the characters, this ending could not be any bigger or dramatic. No, there's not a big climatic, CGI heavy, explosion filled, epic battle for 1 million dollars at the end, but that wouldn't make sense for the world and characters of Nebraska. The happenings of the world of Nebraska are all small, at least on the surface. It's this scale of things that causes a lack of a real memorable and powerful dramatic scene or a real hilarious comedic moment that stays with the viewer. That said, sometimes looks can be deceiving. While the end to Nebraska is very small in terms of plot it is incredibly huge for its two main characters. In fact, the ending of Nebraska is one of the more powerful endings seen on screen this year.
Nebraska, overall, never leaves enough of an impact on the viewer to really be considered a great movie, but that certainly doesn't mean it is not good and that it is not worth viewing. Nebraska proves, in its small scale, that sometimes more isn't always necessary. Sometimes less is enough. In fact, in the case of the ending, sometimes less really is more.