Finding Humor and Poignancy and…the Ghetto: Blending Drama and Comedy in NEBRASKA
2 March 2014
Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, written by Bob Nelson, tells of elderly Woody Grant’s journey to claim his $1,000,000 winnings from a sweepstakes certificate he received in the mail. Only trouble is, Woody (Bruce Dern) did not actually win any money. The sweepstakes is a scam, and Woody’s wife Kate (June Squibb) and grown son David (Will Forte) realize that, even though Woody remains convinced he has finally hit it big. Desperate and determined to get from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska and claim his winnings, but without a license to drive, Woody tries walking, only to be picked up by the police. Woody’s son, feeling compassion for his aging father’s plight, agrees to drive him to Lincoln, as long as they can stop in Woody’s hometown, Hawthorne, Nebraska, along the way for an impromptu family reunion; Woody begrudgingly agrees. Turns out, Woody has been hard up for money in the past, borrowing from friends and family. And while he has bartered away his debts, most of Woody’s hometown friends and family are selfish, money-hungry people. As soon as people hear that Woody is on his way to Lincoln to collect $1,000,000, people crawl out of the woodwork looking for Woody to repay old debts. Despite David repeatedly telling the residents of Hawthorne that Woody is confused and did not actually win any money, former friends and estranged family members persist. That is until the town sees Woody’s sweepstakes certificate, realize he has not won anything, and mock him publicly. With his health failing, Woody and David leave Hawthorne, headed for Lincoln, where Woody will come face to face with the reality that he has not struck it rich, at least not financially.
One of the most striking things about Nebraska is the way the film blends poignancy with humor. There is a great deal of sadness in Nebraska. Woody Grant, for example, is “old man” who can barely walk, and who seems unsettled with his life. Perhaps more pointedly, he seems unsettled with what he has not accomplished in his life. The fact that Woody is desperate for his sweepstakes winnings so he can buy a truck and an air compressor suggest Woody feels inadequate in some way, that there are dreams he has had all his life that never became reality. He is so desperate to meet these dreams in his life’s 11th hour he travels to another state, foolishly believing he won $1,000,000.
Woody never says much throughout the film, not only identifying him as a man of few words, but also suggesting that he is somewhat voiceless and defeated. People talk over Woody, for Woody, and at Woody, and he takes it all. By the end of the film, when Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach) confronts Woody over the credibility of his sweepstake ticket, Woody stands in front of Ed and takes the abuse; David punches Ed for the malicious, unkind comments toward Woody. That is a very satisfying moment for the audience because David lovingly stands up for his father (foreshadowing the conclusion); however, it is a final reminder that Woody has no voice and, perhaps, is too defeated to find the self-worth to defend himself.
Conversely, the film does not dwell in sorrow; the film is as wickedly funny as it is somber. Kate, for example, is the opposite of Woody, meaning she surely has her voice, and never stops using it. She has something to say about everyone (living and dead), and she has no problem telling people exactly what is on her mind. Even a former suitor whose grave she finds on a trip to the local Hawthorne cemetery. Lifting up her skirt, Kate flashes the grave and tells this lost love, may he rest in peace, to take a good look at what he could have had. Although her unfiltered nature tests the limits of comedy at times, Kate’s brazen humor is accepted as comic relief in Nebraska because the film clearly communicates that Kate is foundationally good-hearted and strong-willed; she always protects Woody and her children, even if her unabashed mouth sometimes unleashes on them. Kate’s comedy helps balance Woody’s sadness.
But, it is not just that Nebraska is poignant in some moments and humorous in others. What is impressive about this comic-laced drama is how nuanced the film is in blending comedy and emotion simultaneously, making the difficult things a little easier to watch, and giving the silly things some necessary weight.
One example of this blend comes mid-way through the film, when Woody, Kate, and David have dinner at Back Road Steakhouse in Hawthorne, where it just so happens to be karaoke night. To set the scene, this sequence opens with a woman holding a microphone, standing in the performance area, awaiting her karaoke cue, as the lead in music to “Time After Time” plays. Based on the patrons, Back Road primarily services the elderly community, some of who make their way to the salad bar while karaoke singers entertain the masses. Woody, Kate, and David sit away from the karaoke stage, in a connected room; however, the melodious sounds echo in for their (and the audience’s) listening pleasure. Expressing her ruthlessly hilarious wit, Kate asks Woody, “What are you having, old man?” He replies, “Meatloaf.” Meatloaf is not on the menu, frustrating Kate. Just then the waitress arrives to ask everyone’s order, and, as she does, Ed Pegram, an old friend of Woody’s and antagonist in the film, takes the karaoke performance stage and begins to sing “In the Ghetto.” Kate notices, claiming Ed’s voice is the nicest thing about “that bastard,” which starts her on a rant about how all the men in Hawthorne wanted to “get in [her] bloomers” when she was younger. From the karaoke area, Ed interrupts their conversations, drawing everyone’s attention to Woody, “a celebrity” for having won $1,000,000 in a sweepstakes, and encourages the restaurant to applaud for his old friend turned local millionaire.
On the surface, this sequence is absolutely hilarious. The audience is treated to a Grant family dinner at the local steakhouse on karaoke night. To accompany their bickering over menu items and Kate’s rambling about how many men wanted to sleep with her in Hawthorne, Ed serenades everyone with a cover of Elvis Presley’s 1969 comeback hit, “In the Ghetto.” Could a more perfect song have been selected to elicit giggles from the audience? Probably not. What does Ed, a farmer from Nebraska, know about the vicious circle of poverty and gun violence for families in inner-city Chicago (the story told in the song’s lyrics)? Nothing. But that does not stop him from selecting the song, deepening his voice, and belting out this obscure classic for the good people of the Back Road Steakhouse.
Moreover, when Ed calls attention to Woody, and Woody stands up to receive his round of applause from the restaurant, the karaoke version of “In the Ghetto” continues. Ed is no longer singing the lyrics, but the background music continues to repeat the phrase “in the ghetto” as Woody looks around the room at the applause. Woody is ‘in the ghetto.” Maybe not the actual ghetto, as described in the song, but certainly an odd “back road” ghetto of his past.
Yet, this scene is not just funny; this sequence is a blend of humor and sadness. First, this scene is another reminder that Woody has aspirations he cannot reach. It is a small example, but in this scene Woody was looking for meatloaf. According to the waitress, the restaurant has it, but only for lunch. Woody is out of luck, seemingly a recurring issue for him in this film. Add meatloaf to the long list of things Woody almost gets in the film: $1,000,000, a brand new truck, respect from his family and friends, etc.
Moreover, instead of meatloaf, Woody orders chicken. When the waitress asks him if he prefers fried or roasted, he asks for fried. Kate interrupts and orders him roasted chicken. Once again, we see Woody without a voice. He does not argue with Kate; he immediately looks down, accepting that he will have roasted chicken for dinner. Sorrow in his defeat over the dinner option is quickly subverted by “In the Ghetto” which begins playing in the background at exactly that time.
When Ed calls out Woody for his winnings, and commands the restaurant to applaud Woody, the audience cannot help but take this seemingly celebratory moment in stride, remembering Woody has not won anything. It is very difficult to watch Woody receive a standing ovation for a delusion. Moreover, the audience watches Woody look confused as he stands up because he probably did not hear what Ed Pegram announced from the karaoke stage—difficulty hearing is a constant problem for Woody. Woody clearly recognizes the people are applauding for him, and he smiles, but he does seem to understand why this is happening, filling the moment with the feeling of embarrassment and not joy.
Nebraska constantly jumps between laugh out loud humor and heart wrenching moments. The Back Road Steakhouse scene is one of many that blends comedy with tragedy, pulling viewers in and creating a genuinely emotional film viewers cannot help but invest in. There is no dramatic turn of event, surprise ending, or unexpected conflict in Nebraska, yet, because the film subtly balances a range of appeals to viewers, there does not need to be any twist to make the film satisfying and memorable.