Nebraska is gentle and heartfelt. It doesn’t really go anywhere fast, but it still strikes an emotional chord that falls right in line with director Alexander Payne’s other recent works. Payne has always been fascinated by themes such as aging and friendship, and here, working from Bob Nelson’s script, returns to his home state of Nebraska for a story about just that.
Bruce Dern plays Woody Grant, an aging alcoholic who doesn’t have much to live for. He lives in Billings, Montana with his wife, Kate (Squibb), and has been returned home by police after wandering aimlessly on the local highways. Woody is determined to make it to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim $1 million. How did he “win”? Well, he received a letter in the mail that’s the kind of spam we all throw away on a weekly basis. Woody’s son, David (Forte), tries to tell him it’s a scam, but he’ll have none of it. Reluctantly, and because it means so much to his Dad, David agrees to drive Woody to Lincoln to “claim” the prize. They’ll soon find themselves stopped over in Hawthorne, Nebraska – Woody’s home town – where a few locals still have scores to settle upon hearing of his “riches.”
Nelson’s script touches upon multiple themes, all successfully. Part father/son road trip and part meditation on the economic downfall of the midwest, Nebraska mixes an otherwise solemn tone with frequent dry comedy. There are cross-ups as David insists to the Hawthorne locals that Woody hasn’t won anything, even as Woody’s local celebrity status continues to grow. Subplots involving familial discoveries and one of Woody’s lost loves (Angela McEwan) really hit the mark.
Forte, likely known as MacGruber to most, makes an interesting dramatic turn as a man who initially thinks his father is crazy, but soon learns he just needs something to live for and it’s worth seeking out his dream. Dern is effective as Woody, wholly believable as a troubled old man who left his past behind, but still yearns to see what has happened to his home town. It’s June Squibb, however, as Woody’s foul-mouthed and blunt wife that steals every scene she is in. A scene in which she reflects on past friends and acquaintances at a cemetery is one of the year’s funniest.
There’s nothing groundbreaking or revelatory in Nebraska. It’s a leisurely-paced drama that remains constantly watchable thanks to some fine dialogue and Squibb’s punchy performance. Payne continues to explore human relationships and the father/son interaction here feels realistic and genuine. It makes the final emotional journey of Woody and David that much more effective the as film reaches a predictable, yet smile-inducing conclusion. There’s also an effervescent warmth and kindness that feels refreshing.
Studio: Paramount Vantage
Length: 115 Minutes
Rating: R for some language.
Theatrical Release: November 15, 2013 (Limited)
Directed by: Alexander Payne
Written by: Bob Nelson
Cast: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Bob Odenkirk, Stacy Keach