The invitation to Tuesday night's special screening of Alexander Payne's new movie, "Nebraska," came from Will Forte, whose surprise casting provides just one of the film's many unexpected pleasures.
And Forte was taking his hosting duties seriously, welcoming friends and guests to United Talent Agency's pristine screening room, offering a few introductory remarks ("Oh ... I was told you were allowed to record it ... wait, now I'm being told ...") and even directing people to the bathroom during a pleasant, low-key reception following the film.
"It's such a privilege just being part of something like this, I'm happy to do whatever I can," Forte told me between accepting compliments from well-wishers. "Where's your car? You need your car pulled up to the front?"
"Nebraska" focuses on Woody Grant, an elderly man (Bruce Dern) convinced he has won a $1 million sweepstakes prize from a mass-market mailer. His wife (June Squibb) dismisses the idea, so Woody decides -- again and again and again -- to walk from his home in Billings, Mont., to Lincoln, Neb., to claim the prize. Finally, Woody's warmhearted son, David (Forte), agrees to drive him to Lincoln. Along the way, they stop in the small Nebraska town where Woody grew up and much of his family still lives.
It's an outstanding movie, ranking with Payne's ("The Descendants," "Sideways") best work. Talking to Payne in Cannes, where the wide-screen, black-and-white film premiered in May, Times film critic Kenneth Turan called it a "tart-tongued screwball comedy with unexpected poignancy and warmth." And that feeling sneaks up on you, building its power from the way the movie upends the audience's expectations for its characters.
"When I first read it, I was surprised at almost every turn," said Squibb, who attended the event Tuesday night with Forte, Dern and the movie's producers, Ron Yerxa and Albert Berger. "At first, I thought my character would just be a nag, you know? But then it just slowly reveals who she is and what she has been through. And it does that with every character. It's just beautiful."
Following the screening, Forte spent a fair amount of time huddled with his onetime "Saturday Night Live" costar Jason Sudeikis, who was there with wife Olivia Wilde, and a host of other comedy all-stars including Ed Helms, Nick Offerman and Megan Mullally.
Forte had just seen Sudeikis and Wilde three weeks ago at Seth Meyers' wedding. (Hold on ... we thought Meyers married this guy. "That was annulled," Forte joked.) Knowing Forte and his potential to dig deeper as a dramatic actor still didn't quite prepare his friends for the strength of his work in "Nebraska."
An appreciative Forte preferred to shine a light on his costars -- and not just Dern and Squibb, but the countless extras Payne and his longtime casting director collaborator, John Jackson, found to play Woody's family and the residents of his hometown.
"One guy came from community theater, while some had never acted a day in their lives," Forte said. "And they just nailed every line and emotion. These people really add to the fabric of the movie and make it something special."
Payne, Dern and Squibb will bring "Nebraska" to the New York Film Festival on Oct. 8. It opens in theaters Nov. 15.
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