In the course of your career you've tamed some of Hollywood's hunkiest manes and manliest scalps. We're talking George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Ryan Gosling. But I'm curious to know: how did it feel to finally work with the greatest onscreen hair of all time? No, not Jack Nicholson. Not Christopher Lloyd. Sure, they come close to claiming the title, but I'm talking about the one actor you seek out when you need a shock of hair that conveys a psyche a few steps left of normal: Bruce Dern.
Casual observers may think that a snow-white plume of crazy would be easy to handle, but they'd be wrong. Like everything else in this film, what seems simply on the surface conceals an underlying complexity. No splashy, sentimental performances. No outrageous plot twists. No CGI. Just regular folks reckoning with their circumstances, quietly, with dignity, and suffused with director Alexander Payne's signature dry wit.
In Nebraska, Dern (and his hair) play stubborn alcoholic Woody Grant, an easily-confused septuagenarian intent on cashing in a magazine sweepstakes certificate that has declared him a millionaire. He's fixated on getting to Lincoln, Nebraska to collect his "winnings," and youngest son David (Will Forte), his own life in a rut and seeking to connect with his gruff father, offers to drive him there. But an unplanned stop in Woody's hometown brings the extended Grant family together and news of his jackpot reignites old grudges.
It's easy to forget just how good Dern - whose manic visage has seen him cast as sociopaths and raving lunatics in forgettable b-movies - has been in other films (They Shoot Horses Don't They, Coming Home, etc.). The Oscar buzz surrounding him this year is justified and overdue. He's not a psychopath or creep, here, but a regular joe born in the shadow of the Greatest Generation and grasping desperately for his last chance at the American Dream. Woody's tragicomic determination has a certain quixotic quality to it_; _his steed is his son's Subaru, his helmet the unkempt cirrus you and your hairdressing team so carefully crafted. When father and son are taking in Mount Rushmore, Woody comments, "Looks like somebody got bored doing it", and you get the feeling he's talking about his own life.
This is the fourth film that Payne has set in his home state of Nebraska, and he takes advantage of the unapologetic mundaneness without glorifying it. The melancholy in the black and white cinematography feels appropriate; in Payne's Nebraska there are no box stores or franchises, no clothes that aren't plaid ,and, with one notable exception, no cars newer than ten years old. It's Napoleon Dynamite without the irony.
This type of period piece/not-a-period-piece presents its own set of challenges, though, especially when it comes to hairstyles. Hair, as you know, can date a film faster than an outfit or a song (see any 80's movie for proof). It takes skill to make actors look like ordinary people and make ordinary people look like movie stars (Payne uses a lot of non-actors in speaking roles). Kudos for reflecting Nebraska's honesty and making it all look effortless.
While theatres this winter are full of funky disco-coiffes (American Hustle, Anchorman 2) and $200 haircuts (Wolf of Wall Street). it's the Mrs. Claus comb-and-curl of Woody's wife Kate, played by June Squibb, that belies the most outrageous character of the season.
She berates her family as fiercely as she defends it. She has no social filters, curses, judges, and flashes the grave of an old flame. It would have been easy to resort to caricature when styling these flyover-state folks, but instead you and Payne have given us an authenticity and unaffectedness that reveals the residents of _Nebraska _to be real people with simple problems. No casino capers or political intrigue here, just the slow, soul-wrenching acceptance of one's own mortality and it's resulting isolation.
And, of course, the greatest onscreen hair of all time, perhaps soon to get the recognition it (and its owner) deserves.