Monday, January 13, 2014


Nebraska is the latest film from Academy Award-winning director Alexander Payne, starring Bruce Dern and Will Forte. It's the road trip and father-son tale of Woody Grant (Dern), an alcoholic and slightly senile Korean War veteran who believes he's won a million dollar prize based on a sweepstakes letter he received in the mail. Woody determinedly plans on walking from his home in Billings, Montana to the prize collection office in Lincoln, Nebraska to cash in his prize in person, seeing as how you can't trust the mail these days (especially with one million dollars). With an unsteady gait that makes you fear he'll tip over at any moment, Woody shuffles down the highway on more than one occasion despite the boisterous haranguing of his wife, Kate (a hilarious June Quibb), and younger son David (Forte), who seems to be the go-to person whenever dad needs to be rescued; fielding calls from mom and police in an effort to both help and connect with his cantankerous and emotionally-distant father.

After a number of failed attempts by Woody, David takes pity on his feeble old man and seeing an opportunity to spend time and bond with him, calls in sick at his salesman job ("sick in the head" as his mom Kate says) and leaving his seemingly empty life temporarily behind, the two hit the road in his Subaru en route to Nebraska. Along the way they stop at Mount Rushmore with which Woody isn't very impressed saying it looks like they got tired of working on it (Washington's the only one with clothes and Lincoln doesn't even have an ear) and suffer a scrape or two before they waylay in Hawthorne, Nebraska, Woody's old stomping grounds. Reconnecting with old friends, Woody quickly becomes a minor hometown celebrity when word of his supposed windfall comes to light, helping David learn a thing or two about Woody and showing him how quickly pride in the local boy making good turns to greed when money is involved. An eye-opening journey that will bring father and son together in a way a previously shared lifetime hadn't.

I loved this film. In black and white, the film's stark images of empty landscapes as David's car hits the road and the local mom and pop shops and dive bars that line unassuming one-street towns offers an honest depiction of small-town America. An America were people still gather around the kitchen, sharing the latest gossip on their neighbors, including strengths and foibles going back generations. A glimpse at a wholesome (not necessarily pure) part of America where everyone knows everyone, people still take pride and joy in someone elses success, though greed and envy aren't a foreign state. Nevertheless, Nebraska, its towns and residents are just the backdrop for this heartwarming tale about family (the good and bad), forgiveness and love. An old man nearing the end of his story and the son willing to let go of childhood hurts to see a truer picture (sins and all) of the absent father he'd never known and is just now - when he might not be around much longer - beginning to understand and love.

The acting was wonderful. I've never seen Dern in another film, so I have nothing for comparison purposes but given the brilliance of this performance I'd have to assume that this is a role of a lifetime for him. From the physicality of the role (his lost gaze, stooped shoulders, and halting gait) to his grumpy one liners to the craggy yet expressive face that conveys emotions like an open book (anger, hurt, hope, joy), Dern does what few can and makes it look effortless. Forte was a happy surprise in this role. Despite carrying baggage like MacGruber on his resume, he more than holds his own next to Dern's standout performance. You feel his sense of frustration early in the film and slowly see the shift in the emotions for his dad, as he shows him limitless understanding and compassion. June Quibb as the foul-mouthed, long-suffering wife Kate was hilarious. Kate's nagging and complaints mask a deep and abiding love that is readily made apparent when with the ferociousness of a mama bear protecting her young and a clearly enunciated four-letter word she defends Woody from the greedy vultures that come circling; and movingly visible in the way she tenderly pats down his hair as he lies in a hospital bed, after only seconds earlier griping that he's going to be the death of her.

A couple of facts I found interesting about Nebraska and its director were that Alexander Payne grew up in Omaha and four of his six feature films were actually filmed in Nebraska. In addition to the stellar main cast, Payne cast a number of real Nebraskans in small supporting roles, including Ron Vosta, an 86-year old Nebraska farmer who submitted a self-audition tape that his daughter helped him put together; Rachel Lynn Liester, a real waitress that the crew met when she waited on them during production; and Noah Matteo, who had never acted and along with his brother auditioned for the cub photographer role, to name a few.

Nebraska is a beautiful film that grabs your heart and tickles your funny bone. It is sweet, poignant and funny and a touching depiction of old age and the ties that bind.