Directed by Alexander Payne
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:
Nebraska opens in New York and Los Angeles on November 15 and in other cities over the next few weeks.