NEW YORK — Since it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last May, "Nebraska" has had a strange ride. The Alexander Payne father-son road-trip dramedy was greeted on the Croisette with an enthusiastic public screening but some mixed reviews.
But as can happen with movies at Cannes, particularly American ones, those reactions often don’t hold up. The movie drew raves in its sneak screening at the Telluride Film Festival over Labor Day weekend, and today it has its official U.S. premiere at the New York Film Festival, where it will look to begin building Stateside buzz ahead of its commercial rollout from Paramount Vantage on Nov. 22.
The black-and-white film focuses on a trip that David Grant (Will Forte) takes with his doddering, crusty father Woody (Bruce Dern) to Woody’s childhood hometown in rural Nebraska after Woody is convinced he’s won money in a junk-mail sweepstakes. Woody is addled with dementia and has settled into a kind of leave-me-alone stasis, but he's dead set on making the trip from Montana to Lincoln to claim it, which in turns leads to a stop in a place where he hasn't seen old acquaintances and relatives for decades — and which opens up the story to all sorts of narrative and thematic possibilities.
June Squibb, who had a part in Payne’s “About Schmidt,” stars as Woody’s hilariously exasperated wife, with an assortment of character actors colorfully filling out the Grants' extended family and the small-town Midwest, where time seems to have stood still.
Fittingly for Dern, it’s a coming-home movie, though many of the truths are actually learned and seen through through the eyes of David, who sometimes seems to be the only rational person around for a country mile.
The movie is on its face a tough sell — a black-and-white film with older character actors (Dern and Squibb) and a performer (Forte) known chiefly for comedic characters on the likes of “Saturday Night Live” and “30 Rock,” all told at a languorous pace. But it’s also highly irresistible, and though the comedy and sense of place are very specific, it comes with a kind of familial truthfulness that will resonate widely.
“Even though my family is nothing like the family in the movie, it seemed very relatable,” Forte said.
He was speaking at a news conference with Payne, Squibb and Dern after the movie played for media on Tuesday afternoon.
At that gathering, the film’s comeback back story was on display in a session that foreshadowed the tale that will be told often in the coming season. Dern won the best actor award at the Cannes Film Festival, a triumphant return in an up-and-down career that hasn’t seen him have a lead role in a major film in three decades.
“When I got this script, I said this is what I got into the business to do. And I haven't been able to do it very often in 55 years,” the actor said Tuesday.
With the shuffle (injuries from his endurance-running hobby have taken their tolls) and the vocalizations of the character he plays, Dern radiated experience, as well as film history, the kind that a certain type of Oscar voter will doubtless adore. Dern is one of the few actors working today who can say things like “I began awhile ago with Mr. Kazan” and have it be taken totally seriously.
He also told a funny story about legendary New Hollywood director Bob Rafelson making him and Jack Nicholson do 17 takes for "The King of Marvin Gardens" — "'I want to feel goose bumps,’” he said, imitating Rafelson — and even cited a legendary cinematographer as offering an endorsement of "Nebraska." “Haskell Wexler said [of this film that] it's like watching a moving scrapbook of Ansel Adams photographs.”
Squibb — whose cutting comic timing in the movie is one of its many selling points — was similarly willing to go to the I’m-a-veteran well. “I recognized I am lucky in terms of someone my age being able to have this role,” she said. “We sometimes have laws ‘you can’t do this, you can’t do that.’ And they’re always meant to be broken."
Patience is a theme in the film, both in how characters wait a long time for their moment and in the pacing of the story. It also applied to the director, who read Bob Nelson’s script a decade ago but decided to wait until it — and he — were ready. “I didn't want to follow 'Sideways' with another road trip movie,” he said of his 2004 Paul Giamatti breakout. Luckily, he added as he pointed to his cast, “they were all willing to wait.”
How Payne works to achieve his subtle shades of humanity will be a part of the film's promotional story as it rolls out. At the news conference, Dern said there was a simple technique.
“He’s so natural and so insistent on reality,” Dern said. “In every scene or so he surrounds you with two or three non-actors and you can’t [over]perform in front of the —”
Interjected Forte: “I would like to stop being referred to as a non-actor.”