Bruce Dern as Woody Grant
Will Forte as David Grant
June Squibb as Kate Grant
Bob Odenkirk as Ross Grant
Stacy Keach as Ed Pegram
Ronald Vosta as Uncle Albert
Directed by Alexander Payne
Elderly Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) received a letter in the mail saying he won a million dollars, but he has to get to Lincoln, Nebraska in order to collect it, a trip he’s become obsessed with making, much to the annoyance of his wife (June Squibb) and sons David and Ross (Will Forte, Bob Odenkirk). David knows how much this means to his father so he agrees to drive him, but an emergency stop in Hawthorne, Nebraska, reunites Woody with his family and suddenly makes him the undesired center of attention when people learn of the million dollars he’s “won.”
For some reason, there’s always seemingly been a strange love-hate feeling moviegoers and critics have towards Alexander Payne’s work, normally depending on their tastes and sensibilities. Payne has never directed a straight comedy or a straight drama, always mixing the genres, often so well that one never knows whether they’re allowed to laugh at what happens to his characters. That’s certainly the case with “Nebraska,” Payne’s first movie not directed from a script he wrote himself, although it fits in well with his previous movies.
Bruce Dern’s Woody harks back to Jack Nicholson’s character in “About Schmidt,” a crotchety old man who is fairly set in his ways, the big difference being that Woody has his whole family around him with only his younger son David humoring his desire to collect the million dollars he thinks he won. After Woody tries to get to Lincoln on his own to collect the money, David offers to drive him, but while on the road, Woody’s drinking problem resurfaces, causing even more problems for his son. He decides that they’d best make a stop in Woody’s old hometown of Hawthorne, Nebraska, where we meet his brother Albert and his two sons as well as others from Woody’s past. When they learn that Woody has won a million dollars, he becomes an instant celebrity in the small town, much to the frustrations of David who knows that his father has fallen for a sweepstakes scam.
Much of the attention for the film has been placed deservedly on Bruce Dern’s portrayal of a fragile old man, a man whose lifetime highs are behind him, leaving him open to be scammed by the old “You’ve won a sweepstakes” scam. It’s the type of performance that often doesn’t require a word to be said to convey the emotions that he’s masking. Will Forte gives a surprisingly strong dramatic performance, one that never relies on any of the things we’ve seen Forte do so well in the past, and Bob Odenkirk also plays his role very seriously. This is quite a testament to Payne’s eye as a director that he’s able to see the talent these comedic actors have and what they could bring to straighter roles.
For Alexander Payne, this premise is fairly high concept and during the first half hour, it doesn’t seem like there is enough of a story to maintain a film that could have easily turned into two hours of Dern and Forte driving and talking. Because of that, the film does drag at times, but it’s also why the stop in Hawthorne really turns things around with much of the humor coming from the situation and the supporting characters, particularly Woody’s family. Woody’s wife, played by June Squibb, isn’t a pleasant person, constantly gossiping and bad-mouthing others, including Woody. When she shows up in Hawthorn to retrieve her husband, things really start to heat up, because she’s not one to mince words or keep her mouth shut.
The closest the film has to an antagonist though comes in the form of Stacy Keach as Woody’s former partner Ed Pegram, who cheated him out of money and then threatens David if Woody doesn’t give him a portion of his winnings. Forty years earlier, Pegram also supposedly stole Woody’s air compressor, a running subplot that’s resolved in a very funny way.
The handling of that resolution, as well as the casting of some of the satellite characters with unknowns, makes it feel like Payne is delving into Coen Brothers territory at times. Much of that could also be attributed to the decision to shoot the movie in black and white despite it being a contemporary film, a decision that’s beautifully realized by Phedon Papamichael’s cinematography, which works in a similar way at capturing the plains of the MidWest in full screen glory as his camerawork did with the various islands of Hawaii in “The Descendants.”
More than anything, the film offers a poignant look at the growing relationship between a son and his father as he learns more about his past, and it’s the kind of movie that will leave you appreciating your own father that much more.
The Bottom Line:
More in line with “About Schmidt” than “Sideways,” Alexander Payne’s latest is a warm and witty look at the relationship between fathers and sons set within the relatively foreign (to most) world of suburban Nebraska.
Nebraska opens in New York and Los Angeles on November 15 and in other cities over the next few weeks.