Movie review: 'Nebraska' a lovely, funny character portrait

CorrespondentDecember 12, 2013 

Bruce Dern and Will Forte star as father and son in “Nebraska.”


  • Nebraska

    A Cast: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Bob Odenkirk, Stacy Keach

    Director: Alexander Payne

    Length: 1 hour, 55 minutes

    Rating: R (vulgar language)


    Raleigh: Rialto. Chapel Hill: Chelsea. Durham: Carolina.

Old Woody Grant – boozy, broke down and confused – isn’t interested in fading away.

As played by veteran actor Bruce Dern in “Nebraska,” the new film from director Alexander Payne, 80-something Woody is a cantankerous pillar of stubbornness. His long-suffering wife Kate (June Squibb) is at the end of her rope. Dementia is creeping in on Woody’s mind, and he’s getting into the bad habit of wandering off and out of town, down the local interstate.

Woody has a purpose, though: He’s just received one of those magazine sweepstakes coupons in the mail that says he’s won a million dollars. Woody can’t drive anymore, so he intends to walk – from Billings, Montana, to Lincoln, Nebraska – and claim his prize.

Enter Woody’s son David, played by comic actor Will Forte in a successfully odd casting choice. David tries to explain that the sweepstakes bit is the oldest scam in the book, but Woody chooses not to hear that. The million-dollar prize is his last chance to be a winner. David sees his dad’s doomed quest as a chance to connect, and agrees to drive him to Lincoln, over the incredulous objections of mom and brother Ross (Bob Odenkirk).

So begins the damnedest road trip movie you’ll ever see. Shot in crisp black-and-white, “Nebraska” is both bleak and funny, its moments of grimness regularly offset by scenes of laugh-out-loud comedy. It’s a potent mix, with everything rooted deeply in character. Dern won the Best Actor award at the Cannes Film Festival for his performance, and it’s the role of a lifetime.

En route to Lincoln, the boys make a fateful detour to Woody’s hometown of Hawthorne, Nebraska, where the film’s central themes emerge. It seems Woody was known in Hawthorne as the town drunk (one of several, to be fair). His clipped conversations with David reveal he’s been a pretty poor and largely absent father, too.

This isn’t a mean-drunk story, though. As the film builds, Dern reveals the buried emotional strata, dense and impacted, beneath Woody’s surface. An essential decency and meekness emerge, and back in his hometown you see the man as he was in more hopeful days.

A hastily arranged family reunion introduces Woody’s brothers and other assorted kin, and there’s a scene of spot-on authenticity as the men sit silently in the living room, staring at the TV, occasionally talking about cars.

Woody can’t help but spill the news about his million-dollar windfall, and he becomes the talk of the town. Once the rumor mill starts spinning, poor David finds he’s unable to stop the madness. Family members and even an old bully from Woody’s past (Stacy Keach) come calling for a slice of the pie that was never there to begin with.

“Nebraska” moves to rhythms all its own, and a big part of the fun is that you genuinely don’t know what’s going to happen next. Director Payne (“Sideways,” “The Descendants”) excels at creating sharply drawn characters, and the tension here – comic and dramatic – comes from following people and not plot conventions. The film caroms from taverns to hospitals, graveyards and farmhouse ruins. One spectacular sequence, concerning an improvised family heist, had me laughing so hard my face actually hurt.

And don’t be scared off by the black-and-white cinematography. It’s gorgeous and there for a reason.

In the end, we’re given two prizes. Dern provides a deeply nuanced character portrait of a man daring, finally, to peek around the walls he’s built over the years with booze and fear. The other journey is made by David, who intuits a way to love his dad despite all the damage done. The moments of happiness they find are brief but dazzling. “Nebraska” is one of the loveliest, funniest and best movies of the year.

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