By Dan Metcalf, Jr.
Clipper Film Correspondent
Nebraska (Paramount Vantage)
Rated R for some language.
Starring Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Bob Odenkirk, Stacy Keach, Mary Louise Wilson, Rance Howard, Tim Driscoll, Devin Ratray, Angela McEwan, Gelndora Stitt, Elizabeth Moore, Kevin Kunkel, Dennis McCoig, Ronald Vosta.
Written by Bob Nelson.
Directed by Alexander Payne.
Growing old is quite the hassle. In my half century, I can attest that things don't work as well as they used to (I'm sure there's more of that to follow), but it's also just as tough to deal with elderly relatives (or so I hear). That's the backdrop for Nebraska – Alexander Payne's latest film about a man on a journey to collect a big cash prize – or perhaps a little dignity.
Bruce Dern stars as Woody Grant, and elderly retiree living in Montana with his grumpy wife Kate (June Squibb). Woody has a tendency to wander off ever since he received one of those notices in the mail suggesting that the recipient has won a major cash prize – if their number is selected. Thinking he has won a million dollars, Woody makes several attempts to walk from Billings to Lincoln Nebraska to collect his prize. Woody's youngest son David (Will Forte), a single man with no real prospects in life is the default caregiver whenever his dad wanders off.
When Woody continues to insist he's won the big award, David resolves to drive his dad to Lincoln – just to prove it's all a scam, and to put the idea to rest. Along the way, the father and son take a detour to Woody's home town in rural Nebraska, where most of his old friends and relatives still live. The rest of their family, including Kate and David's older brother Ross (Bill Odenkirk) decide to join them for a little impromptu family reunion at an uncle's house.
During their stay in town, Woody interacts with the general population, mentioning his great fortune. In a short amount of time, Woody becomes a home-grown celebrity. His fame also attracts the vulture-like tendencies among the townspeople and his relatives, most of whom try to take advantage of him. Despite all their complaints about Woody, his family rises to his defense and makes a few hilarious attempts to get a little revenge on a few of the yokels (including relatives) who abuse their relationship.
In the end, David and Woody make it to Lincoln to discover if there really is a reward – or if being part of a family is reward enough for an old fellow whose been through a lot.
I loved Nebraska for many of the same reasons I loved Alexander Payne's other films like The Descendents, About Schmidt and Sideways. Most of his movies involve characters who discover very bad things about family members while traveling on a great journey. It may seem formulaic, but it's a device that works well for Payne, and Nebraska is no exception.
Bruce Dern deserves all the accolades he's getting for his performance as Woody. He projects an honest character as a man who's been beaten by life and yet hangs on to hope for something better. Other performances worthy of note go to Will Forte and June Squibb, who provide a few dramatic surprises among their mostly comedic portrayals.
Nebraska ought to be considered as a comedy, but it has a very dark feel to it, enhanced by being shot in black and white. Such quirkiness might put off general movie audiences, but if you can see past the slow pace and understated messages, Nebraska may be perfect for you. I think it's one of the best films of the year.
To me, the greatest truth Nebraska proves is that even in difficult family situations, there's always a little room for humanity.