Film Review: Nebraska

Alexander Payne crafts a handsome showcase for veteran actor Bruce Dern with this diverting father-son road movie.

The always rewarding and original director Alexander Payne follows his Oscar-nominated The Descendants, which was partly about family tensions over an inheritance, with Nebraska, the tale of a cash windfall that only exists in the mind of its lead character. That fellow would be Woody Grant, a stubborn old codger who insists that he’s won a million-dollar sweepstakes, even as his family tries to convince him it’s all an advertising come-on. Like a Hitchcock MacGuffin, the non-existent prize is the peg on which screenwriter Bob Nelson hangs an alternately charming and caustic road movie about the often exasperating bonds between parents and children and how we could all benefit from taking the time to get to know those sometime-strangers we call Mom and Dad.

As the befuddled but headstrong Woody, Bruce Dern won the Best Actor prize at Cannes, and the role is a gratifying capper for this movie veteran whose career dates back to Elia Kazan’s Wild River in 1960 and includes such highlights as They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, Hitchcock’s Marnie and Family Plot, The King of Marvin Gardens, Coming Home and the HBO series “Big Love.” We first spy Woody in the opening shot, slowly trudging alongside a highway not far from his home in Billings, Montana; the old man has decided to walk to Lincoln, Nebraska, where he plans to collect his winnings. After one too many such incidents, his son David (Will Forte) decides to take a break from his job as a salesman at an audio showroom and drive his dad to Lincoln, where he will make him face the truth. But the first stop will be a family reunion in (fictional) Hawthorne, Nebraska, the Grants’ former hometown. Joining David and Woody in Hawthorne will be David’s irrepressible mother Kate (June Squibb) and his swell-headed brother Ross (Bob Odenkirk of “Breaking Bad”), a local TV news anchor.

In Hawthorne, the family circle widens to include Woody’s brother Ray (Rance Howard, father of Ron) and his two fat, no-account sons (Tim Driscoll and Devin Ratray), who keep snickering about the poor travel time David clocked on his drive from Billings. David is aghast to discover that word has gotten out about his father’s sweepstakes “win” and that his dad has become something of a local celebrity. But with the festive mood come expectations of payback for past debts, whether real or inflated—especially from Woody’s arrogant, somewhat menacing former business partner, Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach).

During its stay in Hawthorne, the narrative takes several side trips that reveal aspects of David’s parents he never gleaned before: Woody’s Korean War experiences, Kate’s uninhibited youth, Woody’s troubled relationship with his own father. Like David, if we thought we had the Grant family pigeonholed at the beginning of the film, we’re in for a few surprises.

Forte, never one of my favorite cast members during his “Saturday Night Live” run, acquits himself very well here as agitated straight man to his more eccentric co-stars. Squibb, who appeared as Jack Nicholson’s wife in Payne’s About Schmidt, nearly steals the movie from Dern as Kate, a sweet-looking elderly woman who simply refuses to censor herself and has an unkind word for just about everyone she’s crossed paths with. And Odenkirk’s patented cockiness makes a nice counterpoint to Forte’s self-effacing forbearance.

As director Payne notes in an interview in FJI’s December issue, Nebraska is a rarity for this era, a contemporary studio film shot in black-and-white, which usually serves as shorthand for a period setting. But the choice is apt for a movie that’s very much about how the past colors the present. And those American heartland locations and the weathered face of Bruce Dern (as photographed by Phedon Papamichael) sure do look stunning in monochrome.