Nebraska: Almost Classic Meatloaf

Year Released: 2013
Directed by: Alexander Payne
Starring: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Stacy Keach 
(R, 110 min.)
Drama, Dark Comedy

"And nothing to look backward to with pride,
And nothing to look forward to with hope…”  Robert Frost

We don’t want to care about him, but we do. This old, taciturn curmudgeon who vows to get to Lincoln, Nebraska, to pick up his million dollar promised “prize,” even if he has to walk there all the way from Billings, Montana.

We are all in the con, the scam that puts Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) among the countless gullibles buying their way to promised riches with “just one more magazine subscription. ” So is his family, especially his irreverent wife, Kate (June Squibb), who voices her disapproval early on in no uncertain terms: "I never knew the son of a bitch even wanted to be a millionaire! He should have thought about that years ago and worked for it!"

Ms. Squibb has been nomiated for an Oscar for her part as his shrewish wife.  Several critics praise her

...jolt of tart comic energy — a dash of vinegar in the mashed potatoes. Kate’s blunt honesty is in many ways the key to “Nebraska,” balancing both Woody’s sad illusions and the smiling duplicity of almost everybody else.  (A. O Scott)

The 84-year-old actress (I’m sticking with that term with its feminine ending in spite of the latest push to call both sexes “actors”) has Midwest roots and says she recognizes her mother in the part of Kate. 

To this critic, however, her vulgar tongue follows Hollywood’s penchant for celebrated foul-mouthed elders such as Betty White in The Proposal, which is mild compared to the heroine-addicted-sexual predator-porn-loving-pervert of a grandpa Alan Arkin scored an Oscar for in 2006’s Little Miss Sunshine.

Hollywood, expert in deconstruction, seems to find crude comedy the best chaser for darker themes.  So, don’t expect to find any sweet sentimentality here.  In fact, Nebraska tries so hard to avoid sentiment, it almost errs in the opposite direction, creating some rather cardboard villains in Woody’s fictitious hometown of “Hawthorne.”

The austere high plains come across as an almost claustrophobic vastness, captured so well in the muted tones of black and white film.  And when director Alexander Payne is courageous enough to lift his comic mask to show us true inner despair or hidden tenderness, we are reminded of classics like John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath that featured a young Henry Fonda almost unrecognizable except for that flat voice that projected emotions while denying them. 

In Woody’s futile quest for his prize we echo Death of a Salesman's Willy Loman, longing for a past that lived up to his self illusions. The producers of these classics trusted the public to face despair head on, without a sugar coating of comic clichés.  It seems today’s don’t think the American public is up for a sober dose of reality, and sadly, they may be right.

However, Bruce Dern, in the lead role, brings the same sort of dignity to his misanthrope as Clint Eastwood did to Walter Kowalski in Gran Torino. With Dern’s wobbly gate, aptly described as a 2 year old’s “drunken” stagger, we are also reminded of Michael Caine’s reluctant vigilante Harry Brown in that 2010 epic with the wheezy 80-year-old trying to catch the bad guys as well as his ragged breath.

Woody cannot wield a gun with the expertise of either of these, but his one-minded determination to collect his fortune is a weapon of a sort, one that ultimately persuades his son to go with his estranged father on this final road trip. And there is a stubborn integrity about Woody’s belief that says perhaps too much about our current culture.

Reciptionist: Does he have Alzheimer's?
David Grant: No, he just believes what people tell him.
Receptionist: That's too bad.

–Kathy Borich



Film-Loving Foodie

Our recipe choice comes with some background information that may have you, along with Different Drummer, rooting for 77 year-old Bruce Dern to take home the Oscar this year.  At first glance, Woody and Dern seem complete opposites.  Woody, the alcoholic who, like Robert Frost’s character in "Death of the Hired Hand, has “nothing to look backward to with pride, nothing to look forward to with hope,” seems miles apart from Dern, the actor who really had almost regal roots.

Woody is confused, alcoholic, and so taciturn he is practically mute. In these ways, he is the exact opposite of Mr. Dern, who has never touched alcohol, shuns caffeine and is always in the middle of some dizzyingly digressive story.

Mr. Dern’s great-uncle was the poet Archibald MacLeish, whom he quotes liberally. His godparents were Adlai Stevenson and Eleanor Roosevelt. At the dinner table, he was required to wear white gloves, follow the rules and defer to guests like Uncle Archie and Thurgood Marshall. (Logan Hill)

Yet, the young Dern was overlooked and ignored by his accomplished family.  He even had to raise his white-gloved hand to speak at the table. 

Like Woody, Dern also could be relentless and stubborn to attain his goal.  The actor who early on “… found himself typecast after a few successful turns as a nut job” is now the star in the role of a lifetime. But he got that role only after 8 years of selling the idea to Alexander Payne, the director.

Dern also describes his character Woody as “a return to the pent-up, inarticulate impotence he felt as a child.”

That impotence is reflected in the film in a scene at a Nebraska café where Woody wants the meatloaf for dinner, but finds it’s only on the lunch menu.  Kate orders for him, insisting on the grilled rather than the fried chicken, which is Woody’s preference.

Let’s give Woody his original wish and cheer on Bruce Dern, the poor little rich boy who shares qualities beneath the surface with his screen creation.

Here is a great recipe for Almost Classic Meatloaf we originally shared back in 2005.  It’s time to revisit that classic.  Our recipe comes from Ilona of Boise, Idaho, Woody’s High Plains neighbor, one might say.

Almost Classic Metloaf


▪   2 cups shredded hash brown potatoes

▪   1 cup Italian seasoned bread crumbs

▪   1 cup chopped onion

▪   1/2 cup ketchup

▪   1/4 cup Dijon mustard

▪   1 teaspoon dried oregano

▪   1/2 teaspoon salt

▪   2 large eggs, beaten

▪   2 cloves garlic, minced

▪   2 pounds lean ground beef

▪   Cooking spray

▪   1/3 cup ketchup


Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Combine potatoes, bread crumbs, onion, ketchup, mustard, oregano, salt, eggs and garlic in a large bowl and stir mixture well. Crumble ground beef over potato mixture and stir just until blended. Shape mixture into an 8 1/2-by-4 1/2-inch loaf. Place loaf in an 11-by-7-inch baking dish coated with cooking spray.

Spread 1/3 cup ketchup over top of loaf. Bake at 375 degrees for 1 hour and 15 minutes, or until an instant-read thermometer inserted in the loaf registers 160 degrees. Let stand 5 minutes before slicing.