There is a stark, desolate beauty to “Nebraska.” I mean the movie, not the state; although it’s probably a fair way to describe the state as well.
Filmed in black and white and directed by Alexander Payne, a director that mixes laughs and pathos better than anyone, “Nebraska” is a movie about family and the crushing weight of the past.
The film’s central figure is Woody Grant, who is played effortlessly by Bruce Dern. Woody is a crotchety old drunk on the edge of senility who lives in Billings, Mont. One day Woody receives a mail-order sweepstakes certificate that says he has won a million dollars and can claim the money in Lincoln, Neb.
Since he can no longer drive, Woody sets off walking to Nebraska, until he is retrieved by the authorities. Woody’s wife, Kate (Jane Squibb), and his two grown sons, David (Will Forte) and Ross (Bob Odenkirk), try to explain to Woody that the certificate is just a marketing scam.
Woody will have none of it and sets off walking again, so David agrees to drive him to Lincoln, mostly to keep him from getting killed walking along the interstate.
Along the way, they stop in Woody’s hometown and Woody becomes a local celebrity when he tells his extended family he’s won a million dollars. Word spreads in spite of David’s insistence that Woody hasn’t won anything and Woody’s past crops up in a lot of surprising ways.
“Nebraska” works for a lot of reasons, but most of it has to do with the performances. Dern’s minimalist turn makes Woody an enigma and the focus of the movie for both David and the audience becomes trying to piece together who Woody used to be and how he became the broken man he is today.
Woody goes from victim to villain and back again over the course of this movie as he is at once blunt, coarse, and stubborn, but also wounded, meek and confused. It’s quite a performance and one only an actor of Dern’s experience and talent could deliver.
Forte is also fantastic, especially when you consider he is a comedic actor best known for spending a decade on “Saturday Night Live.” David wants to do right by his dad, but he’s also terrified of turning into him. Forte sheepishly maneuvers his way through this film and while there are quite a few funny moments in “Nebraska,” he lies back and lets the rest of the cast score the laughs — especially Squibb, who plays Kate as a force of nature ready and willing to give everyone a piece of her mind.
I should also throw some props to Odenkirk, another comedic actor, who already earned his dramatic cred as Saul on “Breaking Bad,” and Stacey Keach, who is always great and plays Woody’s former business partner, Ed.
Payne is an expert at finding humor in the mundane, as anyone who has ever attended a family reunion in the Midwest will find themselves giggling at the awkward small talk about cars and physical ailments, or at the crowded living room silently watching a football game.
But the heart of “Nebraska” is the relationship between Woody and David and how David discovers a whole other side of his father, thus proving how hard it is for generations to truly know one another.
It’s also about how a lifetime of choices can pile up and how Woody hides from all his decisions with the help of alcohol, dementia, and a healthy dose of denial.
Ultimately, this is a touching, funny movie that is worth seeking out this Thanksgiving weekend. What better way to escape uncomfortable moments with your relatives than watching a movie about other people having uncomfortable moments with their relatives?
“Nebraska” is rated R for some language.