Alexander Payne’s Nebraska Looks Grim, Funny

Slate's Culture Blog
Sept. 18 2013 3:39 PM

Alexander Payne’s Nebraska Looks Grim, Funny

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Will Forte and Bruce Dern in the trailer for Nebraska

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Like my Slate colleague, Dana Stevens—but unlike most other critics, not to mention the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences—I was not terribly fond of The Descendants. It was the first Alexander Payne movie that I found disappointing: His first four, from Citizen Ruth to Sideways, were all delightful and surprising in their own distinctive ways.

His latest, Nebraska, is a passion project which he insisted on filming in black and white and which took years to get made. It is set in his home state, which also provided the backdrop for his first three movies—and it’s the third, About Schmidt, that comes most readily to mind while watching a ragged, frazzled Bruce Dern in the movie’s first trailer, which hit the Web yesterday.

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Jack Nicholson, the star of About Schmidt, supposedly turned down the Bruce Dern role (and that reported decision in turn spurred rumors that Nicholson had retired from acting). But the presence of Dern is part of what makes this movie so appealing: The veteran actor has never stopped working, but he rarely gets such major roles. This is arguably his first big shot at a signature starring role since Coming Home, from 1978.

MacGruber himself, Will Forte, is the other lead, in a second bit of unlikely casting, and Bob Odenkirk, aka Better Call Saul, has a smaller part; their presence adds to the darkly comic feel of this trailer, which has shades of Fargo and David Lynch’s The Straight Story in addition to Payne’s own About Schmidt. That’s a daunting trio of films to invoke, but the people in Cannes seemed to think Payne managed to live up to them. Here’s hoping.

David Haglund is a senior editor at Slate. He runs Brow Beat, Slate's culture blog. Follow him on Twitter.