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Not to be a prude…but if you watch this trailer, just be aware that there is some profanity/obscenity in it.

Alexander Payne’s latest film, “Nebraska,” is probably the best comedy of the past couple years.  It might not be as much of a belly-roller as, say, “This Is the End” or “22 Jump Street;” but unlike most contemporary comedies, it manages what the genre actually does best: It incorporates an underlying layer of tragedy.

As the film opens, we meet Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), an elderly man walking alone in the midst of traffic in Billings, Montana.  We soon learn that he is trying to get to Lincoln, Nebraska to collect the $1 million he has won in a sweepstakes.

Film Review NebraskaWoody’s son, David (Will Forte) tries to get him to understand that this is a come-on, meant to lure him into buying a magazine subscription.  Nevertheless, Woody is convinced he has winnings to collect, and is determined.  For the sake of his father’s happiness and against the judgement of his mother, Kate (June Squibb), David agrees to drive him to Lincoln.  There begins the road trip that is the life of the movie.

Nebraska_PosterA few things struck me about this film.  First, and unmistakably, there is a sense of deep longing.  Our main character is nearing the end of his life with broken dreams and unrealized hopes.  Solace seems to come to him chiefly in the form of alcohol.  The sweepstakes, as his son shrewdly observes, has given him a newfound hope, something to live for.

June Squibb – Nebraska

Much of Woody’s discontent appears to be tied to his marriage.  We get the definite impression that this is an unhappy union from the perspectives of both partners (although Kate’s unhappiness with Woody seems more like frustrated love than anything else).

This doesn’t surprise me.  Much of the ambiguity, turmoil, and sadness of the human condition seems inextricably entwined with upsets in marriage…and vice versa.  Don’t get me wrong — marriage is beautiful and permanently essential, and of itself the source of nothing bad whatsoever; but if we recall that the Fall of mankind happened within the context of a marriage, we will not be surprised if the Fall touches marriage in a particular way.

What must be particularly upsetting for Woody and Kate is to see that their perseverance in matrimony is not reflected in their progeny.  Toward the beginning of the film, we briefly meet David’s live-in girlfriend, Noel.  To make a long story short, there is no hint of marriage and a surprising lack of commitment between them.

Stacy KeachTo make matters worse, Woody’s old friend and business partner Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach) comments thus: “Divorce used to be a sin.  God must have changed His mind” (emphasis mine).

Imagine things from Mr. and Mrs. Grant’s perspectives.  They “stuck it out” for decades, each likely having to make very difficult sacrifices along the way…only to find their grown children (or at least one of them) not reflecting the validity of this commitment in their turn.  I imagine there are more than a few married couples from the pre-Sexual-Revolution days who have experienced similar disappointment.

Don’t misunderstand me: In no way am I suggesting that all, or even most — or even very many, for that matter — pre-1960 marriages were unhappy or driven by mere “stick-to-it-iveness.”  Nor am I suggesting that marriage is dead today.  What we are looking at here are two different philosophies of marriage and life, and this contrast bears very much on the storyline of “Nebraska.”

I’ll explore this topic in more depth in part two.

“Nebraska” poster obtained from Wikipedia; remaining images obtained through a Google image search

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