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Will Forte Was the Perfect Sad Son in ‘Nebraska’

As the veteran comic enjoys the ‘MacGruber’ renaissance and his first ‘SNL’ hosting gig, here’s a reminder that his best role was in an Alexander Payne drama about the impossibility of knowing your dad

It’s been a good 12 months for Will Forte. In February, he became a dad for the first time — a few months later he got married. Then in December, he brought back MacGruber, his Saturday Night Live character who was adapted into the 2010 big-screen cult classic, for a new Peacock series. And on Saturday, he’ll be making his debut as an SNL host

It’s surprising he’s never hosted considering he left the show 12 years ago — celebrated former cast members come back all the time — but that’s somewhat in keeping with his comedic modus operandi. On SNL, his brand of bizarre humor was always a little more buttoned-down than his co-stars’, which made it easier to take for granted. Forte has had a successful post-SNL career, but it hasn’t reached the heights of a Will Ferrell or even a Jason Sudeikis. Perhaps it’s partly because of the material he chooses. On the low-key, Emmy-nominated The Last Man on Earth, he made ordinaryness engaging. Even as Jenna’s kinky lover on 30 Rock, the joke was that this wild fetishist looked like Will Forte.

But any appreciation of Forte has to include a non-comedic performance that’s as good as anything he’s ever done, all the while thoroughly tapping into what makes him such a good comedic performer. On one end of the spectrum, the 51-year-old can persuasively play the throat-shredding maniac MacGruber or the eerily monotone, inept politician Tim Calhoun. But on the other end, he could do something like David Grant, the sad son in the 2013 comedy-drama Nebraska. It’s not necessarily “funny,” but it’s also not one of those examples of a comic getting serious in order to show off his range. In this underrated Alexander Payne film, Forte doesn’t try to be “dramatic.” He’s just playing a regular guy.

When Nebraska came out during Oscar season, the attention was mostly on Bruce Dern, a Hollywood legend who gave a wonderfully grizzled, poignant turn as Woody, a drunken older man whose mind is beginning to slip. How else to explain why this Montana resident begins walking to Nebraska, convinced he’s won a sweepstakes, hoping to collect his fortune at the company’s Lincoln headquarters? Woody’s long-suffering son David knows that the contest is bogus, but his dad won’t listen to him — truth is, he doesn’t really listen to anyone, including his fuming wife Kate (June Squibb). 

Because David doesn’t have much going on in his life — he’s newly single and generally unhappy — he offers to drive Woody down to Nebraska. Nebraska doesn’t build to some twist ending — there’s no pot of gold waiting at the end of this rainbow — but if David’s dad isn’t going to walk away a millionaire, maybe the two guys at least can bond in a way they never have before. That dream isn’t realized either, but it’s a nice thought, right?

Forte was far from the obvious choice for the role. Reportedly, Casey Affleck, Bryan Cranston and Paul Rudd were all considered to play David, and even the man who portrayed David’s brother Ross, comedian Bob Odenkirk, had established his dramatic bona fides thanks to Breaking Bad. Forte was anxious at first, but he stuck to what he knew from improv, which was to make David as believable as possible. 

“This character was way closer to how I am in my real life, so I was comfortable in that I kind of knew what I should have been doing,” Forte said when Nebraska opened. “But it also makes the experience uncomfortable because you feel vulnerable in a way that you don’t feel when you’re performing characters, even if you’re doing things that are more embarrassing. You can always blame it on the character. … But this role felt much closer to home and genuinely revealing. Terrifying in a way, but also it was thrilling, so once you got used to that aspect of it, it became fun.” 

Woody is the film’s most striking figure, this ornery old coot who doesn’t say much, and because he’s played by a beloved character actor who’s been in everything from Coming Home to some of Quentin Tarantino’s later pictures, the man has a mythic, unknowable quality, even though he comes across as just a plainspoken Midwesterner. But as David, Forte is the audience’s surrogate, hoping to connect with his dad, who simply will not let him in. Woody never has once in David’s whole life, so why would he now? And yet, David keeps trying. 

“I think many of us have experiences with fathers [who are] loving, they’re nice, but somehow they’re on another planet,” said Payne, who’d previously made About Schmidt and The Descendants, films that were also about men in crisis. “And you wonder your whole life: What is that planet that my father is on?” Nebraska has its comedic moments, but it’s strongest when it’s quieter, just David looking at his dad, trying to make sense of him, as if a road trip could possibly provide him with such answers. The two characters talk, but their wires keep getting crossed. When David opens up about his long-term girlfriend leaving him, Woody doesn’t even recognize her name — and he doesn’t seem that interested to hear more about it. There’s a permanent malaise within David that he papers over with an affable demeanor, but both his outfits and his soul seem permanently frumpled. 

Movies about sad-sack fortysomething dudes are hardly new, but Forte mitigates the potential self-pity by harnessing his patented normalness. Payne has a knack for getting actors to pare down — the volatile Jack Nicholson believably resembled a depressed senior citizen in About Schmidt — but with Forte, I bet the director didn’t have to do much. One of Nebraska’s sneaky surprises is that David never really comes to an understanding with his dad — the gulf that has been there since childhood won’t be bridged. Instead, David will come to accept Woody for who he is. David may have gone on the trip partly for selfish reasons — he wants answers to questions about himself and the mediocre person he grew up to be — but while he might be able to pin some of his deficiencies on his dad’s neglect, the truth is David’s as much to blame as anyone else. 

Forte’s in-the-moment immediacy, a skill he honed in improv and on SNL, serves him well, creating a character who’s just… there. David isn’t a good guy or a bad guy or a loser or a saint. But he desperately needs to stop waiting for his dad to solve his riddles — he has to forgive Woody so he can start being his own person. Instead of waiting for his dad to be different, maybe it’s time for David to do some growing. 

Shot in pensive black-and-white, Nebraska is suffused with melancholy as Woody returns to his hometown, visits his childhood home and stubbornly reflects on a past that’s still with him. Every tiny morsel of information David gets — such as the dead family member he’s named after — is like a clue toward unlocking a mystery. But the film wisely suggests that fathers need their sons as much as sons need their fathers, a lesson that David slowly learns. In Nebraska’s final stretches, the two men finally make it to Lincoln, the resolution of their ridiculous odyssey to claim a bogus sweepstakes playing out far more touchingly than we might expect. And Forte’s wonderfully restrained turn goes a long way to selling that delicate scene.

So much of Nebraska is about David wanting something from his dad, but in its final stretches, David finally understands that he should be giving back. In his career, Will Forte has played a lot of fools — overconfident dopes whose utter assurance made them hysterical — but in Payne’s film, he depicts an average Joe whose modest delusions are far more human-scaled. But that doesn’t make the character any less foolish. In Forte’s comedies, his numbskulls never change, which is why we mock them. In Nebraska, there’s a chance David might, which is why we come to love him.