Bruce Dern’s long and complicated career in Hollywood got new wind and a major boost Thursday night in Cannes. Dern’s starring role in Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska” received a 10 minute or more standing ovation at its black tie premiere, with hoots, hollers, stomping and clapping. Unlike The Great Gatsby, “Nebraska” had a rare Cannes premiere– where they stop the credits and turn up the lights because the audience is going crazy.
Payne–director of “The Descendants,” “Sideways,” and “About Schmidt: among others–has made a unique drama of genuine Americana, a gem of a film in black and white that explores many serious themes but has just enough off beat laughs to lighten the mood.
Like all of Payne’s films, this is a road trip movie. Dern’s Woody Grant maybe has onset dementia. He is a lifelong fucntioning alcoholic, still married to the same woman and father to two adult sons (Will Forte and Bob Odenkirk). He receives a scam letter from a contest company congratulating him on winning a million dollars. The result is a trip from Billings Montana to Omaha Nebraska– which Forte (from Saturday Night Live and McGruber) indulges to mollify his dad.
The movie becomes a meditation on fathers and sons, parents and adult children, reunited families, and the culture of the bleak mid west. There are times when it’s slow, but that may be because of the cadences of the speakers, and the look of the film. The screenplay is by Bob Nelson, and it’s his first feature after some work in television. He’s from South Dakota and this may autobiographical. (Who knows? There are no press notes.)
Some casting highlights: Rance Howard, father of director Ron Howard, plays Woody’s brother and has a substantial role. But June Squibb is a standout as Woody’s wife. She played Jack Nicholson’s wife in “About Schmidt.” Here Payne, with Nelson, gives her much more to do and she shines. Stacy Keach is Woody’s lifelong rival and local bully.
Kudos to Forte and Odenkirk. Forte is a surprise. But he and Dern are perfectly cast as father and son. Their scenes are sublime. Paramount Vantage is releasing “Nebraska,” obviously for Oscars. I hope they take care of it. This is a gentle little film that needs a lot of nurturing. But it’s also going to touch a lot of people and really hit home. Payne really knows how to make these films. My hat is off to him.
Dern’s famous actress daughter Laura was his date last night. (Her mother is Diane Ladd.) Dern has a robust CV: his peak was “Coming Home” in 1978. He played Tom Buchanan in the 1974 “Great Gatsby,” and had a great run in through the 70s. I always thought they should have made a movie of “Rabbit Run” with him. He’s 77 years old, and this is going to be the big moment of his career. Nice.