Starring: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb
Directed by: Alexander Payne (“The Descendents”)
Written by: Bob Nelson (debut)
Director and two-time Oscar-winning writer Alexander Payne (“The Descendants”) takes audiences back on the road in the touching and subtly comical father/son film “Nebraska.” From a narrative perspective, it might not have the same stability like Payne’s other road-trip movies “Sideways” and “About Schmidt,” but Payne has made one of his most well-refined and charming films to date, which should be enough to get his followers into art-house theater seats any day of the week.
In “Nebraska,” Payne and first-time screenwriter Bob Nelson follow Woody Grant (Bruce Dern in an Oscar-worthy performance), a stubborn, ornery old man living in Montana who is convinced he has hit the jackpot when a Publisher’s Clearing House-type letter comes in the mail for him letting him know he has won a million dollars. Of course, it’s all a marketing ploy to get recipients to buy magazine subscriptions, but Woody is certain his luck is real and decides he will walk to Nebraska to claim his prize even if it’s the last thing he does.
Worried about his father’s safety and health, Woody’s son David (Will Forte in a strong breakout role) reluctantly agrees to drive him to the Cornhusker State much to the chagrin of his mother, Woody’s scene-stealing wife Kate (June Squibb), who’s at her wit’s end with her irrational hubby. Along the way, Woody and David meet up with family members who find out about Woody’s good fortune and want a slice of the imaginary pie.
It all makes for some tender and intimate dynamics between well-written characters pulled straight out of the American Midwest. This is especially true with the delicate relationship between Woody and David. Payne paints a picture of a father and son with so many unspoken issues keeping them from truly knowing one another, so when that door is open for David to genuinely ask his father questions about his life, it’s extremely poignant and heartbreaking.
So much of “Nebraska” is about lost dreams and the desire to leave something substantial behind when your time in this world is over. It’s about simple pleasures and knowing you have done your best despite the forks in the road that lead you astray. Payne has captured something special in Woody and David that very few films do when it comes to portraying real family situations. There is a sadness in “Nebraska” that lingers even in the most hopeful scenes. But with Payne behind the wheel, we can all feel confident he’s pointing us in the right direction.