Film reviews: Nebraska | Frozen

Midwest King Lear hits the jackpot, finds Siobhan Synnot, while an updated version of Hans Christian Andersen’s Snow Queen is capable of melting the chilliest adult heart

Will Forte as David Grant, left, and Bruce Dern as Woody Grant in Nebraska. Picture: AP
Will Forte as David Grant, left, and Bruce Dern as Woody Grant in Nebraska. Picture: AP

Nebraska (15)

Director: Alexander Payne

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Running time: 115 minutes

Rating: * * * *

ALEXANDER Payne makes careful studies of obsessive men that are so good, I wish he’d turn his attention to women occasionally. Matthew Broderick in Election, Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt, Paul Giamatti in Sideways and George Clooney in The Descendants have all benefitted from his empathetic thorny character portraits in funny, sharply observed movies.

Now it’s the turn of Bruce Dern as Woody, a cranky old coot who receives a letter in the mail assuring him that he “may already have won one million dollars” in a magazine sweepstake, to be collected from their offices in Lincoln, Nebraska. It’s a scam letter we’ve all received, yet few believe; however Woody is both cantankerous and credulous enough to assert that the prize must exist, or they wouldn’t have sent the letter in the first place.

Woody’s tart wife (June Squibb) thinks the best use of any kind of win would be to put her husband in a home, but after intercepting a staggering attempt to make the journey on foot, their youngest son David (Will Forte) decides that they should indulge his father and drive him the 850 miles to the sweepstakes’ office to claim his fortune. At the very least, it gets him out of town away from his estranged girlfriend and unsatisfying job.

Shot in pearly black and white, it’s the journey, not the destination, which matters. Besides the prickly interplay between father and son, there are encounters with people in the heartlands that showcase their generosity, greed, morality and vacuity. It’s a portrait of an America that is on the wane, and Payne is attentive to those who wish it bon voyage, as well as good riddance. It also gives David the chance to find out more about his dad, although the home truths are not always comforting. Was Woody ever in love with his wife, asks David. “It never came up,” says his father, very matter-of-fact.

Payne is good on family relationships at their most confounding, without being pompous about their significance. Nebraska is a tough, tender film, which unfolds in unexpected ways. Bruce Dern’s portrait of Woody as a befudddled functional alcoholic with occasional flashes of clarity never feels cartoonish or unlikely. A Midwest King Lear, his grouchy dismissal of Mount Rushmore as a bunch of rocks got a round of applause at my screening. If Dern hadn’t been so consistently good, if overlooked, during his long career this would be a standout performance. Also good is Stacy Keach as Ed Pegram, who was once Woody’s co-worker in an auto-repair shop, and the kind of smiling friend who would have you reaching under the table for a decent-sized club.

One of Payne’s earlier pictures, Sideways, brought Thomas Haden Church to greater attention after a career doing sitcoms like Wings. Something similar may happen to Will Forte, better known as a comedy actor on the American sketch show Saturday Night Live, and who I last recall on a gruesomely unfunny movie called MacGruber with a stick of celery up his bottom. His performance is less alarming and more nutritious here, turning what could have been an unreactive stooge performance into an affecting portrait of a son looking for a pathway into a difficult man’s heart.

Frozen (PG)

Rating: * * * *

AFTER second-tier stuff like Brave, Disney returns with Frozen, an update of Hans Christian Andersen’s Snow Queen that is capable of melting the chilliest adult heart.

As with every Disney musical, there are Broadway-style songs, villains, monsters and chase sequences; but in a step forward for Disney princess tropes, what drives the narrative is female sibling loyalty rather than romantic love. Tortured Elsa (Idina Menzel) is a young Nordic heir, whose uncontrollable power to conjure up snow and ice plunges her land into a perpetual winter, created here with frostbitten beauty. It’s up to her estranged little sister Anna (Kristen Bell) to traverse the wintry landscape, thaw out Elsa and save the kingdom – with narrative detours that include a mean foppish courtier (Alan Tudyk), a romantic triangle with a handsome prince (Santino Fontana), a big blond blue-collar ice merchant (Jonathan Groff) and an innocent snowman (Josh Gad) who longs to spend a sunny day at the beach.

It’s warming to see Disney find its feet again with a sweet story and strong characters, especially

after a year that included the calculated, subpar Planes, and indeed underwhelming animated fare from al the usual studios.

And as is customary with a Disney animated adventure, the film is preceded by a bonus shorter feature. The retro Get A Horse! is delightful – actually, it’s even better than Frozen – so do arrive early.

On general release from Friday

Kill Your Darlings (15)

* * *

Daniel Radcliffe goes from Hogwarts to Howl as a pre-Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, who finds his artistic voice through his brushes with drugs, sex and a homophobic murder. The cast are so good, from Radcliffe to Dane DeHaan, that you should overlook that it’s directed like a Dead Poets Society fever dream.

Selected release from Friday

Klown (18)

* * *

In this Danish sex comedy about male cluelessness, adult pals Frank (Frank Hvam) and Casper (Casper Christensen) take Frank’s chubby 12-year-old nephew along on their canoeing man-cation. Arthouse lovers should be aware that this is The Hangover and Role Models with subtitles, playing with taboos and scatology, yet surprisingly sentimental too.

Selected release from Friday

The Patience Stone

* * *

Confessions of a woman (Golshifteh Farahani) confined inside a bombshelled home with a comatose husband. Her rebellion against a repressive religious regime is unexpected, and Farahani is outstanding.

Selected release from Friday

Powder Room (15)

* * *

A night out with women clubbers, including Sheridan Smith, Kate Nash and Jaime Winstone, below. Raw and stagey, it needs a second flush.

Selected release from Friday

Scatter My Ashes At Bergdorf’s (PG)

* *

Matthew Miele lines up gushing tributes to a New York Selfridges. There’s plenty of empty-headed fashionista enthusiasm, and not nearly enough genuinely gripping behind-the-counter detail.

Glasgow Film Theatre, Friday until 12 December

Homefront (15)


This clunky action flick scripted by Sylvester Stallone stuffs a potential guilty pleasure action movie with culty stars such as Jason Statham as a widowed lawman, James Franco as a local meth dealer, Winona Ryder as his moll and Kate Bosworth as his junkie sister. Stay home.

On general release from Friday