Outfitted with delicious wit and a forbearing tone, the charm of screenwriter Bob Nelson’s Midwest-set dramedy, Nebraska, is rooted in its clever dialogue and novel approach to small-town dynamics.
With performances cunningly delivered by Bruce Dern, Will Forte ( Saturday Night Live) and June Squibb ( About Schmidt), the endearing tale follows a father and son who set out on a road trip to collect a $1 million prize.
The aging Woody Grant, played by a pitch-perfect Dern, is convinced he’s hit it rich after receiving a sweepstakes scam designed to bait people into purchasing magazine subscriptions. He’s determined to get to Lincoln, Neb., where he plans to collect his cash from the sweepstakes headquarters — even if it means hitting the road on foot (his wife refuses to drive him) for the 750-mile trip from his home in Billings, Mont.
Unfortunately, Woody is always a bit off-balance. His stride has been reduced to a shuffle and his cognizance is often hazy due to his old age and affection for drinking. Once a successful mechanic, the old man has lost his cachet. His sweepstakes jackpot could be his last shot at getting it back.
When Woody is stopped by a police officer after wandering down the road, his anchorman son Ross, played by Bob Odenkirk, suggests the family relocate him to a home. But his other son, stereo salesman David (Forte), comes to his dad’s aid. “He doesn’t need a nursing home,” he tells his brother. “The guy just needs something to live for.”
Though David knows his father’s mission is bogus, he agrees to drive him to Lincoln to claim his fake fortune. After all, how many more years does his dad really have? David thinks it’s best to let him indulge in his fantasy while he still can.
On the road, distant father and son get to know each other better. When the topic of commitment comes up, David asks about his mother. “Are you ever sorry you married her?” he says. “All the time,” Woody quips. It’s not a sad confession; it’s a hilarious one — especially considering the sharp tongue of the Grant matriarch, played by an unforgettable Squibb, whose brazen delivery is gut-busting.
Eventually stopping in Hawthorne, Neb., where Woody grew up and where many of his family members live, the old man becomes the talk of the town as word gets out that he’s now rich. Soon a slew of folks, including an old rival (Stacy Keach) and money-hungry relatives, have their hands out.
With an eye for illustrating life’s arduous truths, director Alexander Payne (Sideways, The Descendants) governs this story of provisional redemption keenly, especially during a lingering close-up of Woody’s broken gaze after a despairing visit to his childhood home. Shot by Phedon Papamichael, the film is in black and white and appears in an older screen format — a look that is complementary to the picture’s calm nature.
But the performances are what truly accentuate this narrative. Forte carries off every complex quirk, while seasoned actor Dern is uncharacteristically subdued. In the past, Dern has embodied mostly demented and unpredictable characters. But this role suits him. He actualizes every idiosyncrasy, from Woody’s dotty grasp on reality to his keen comedic timing. “Come on, have a drink with your old man,” Dern says to Forte’s David during one of their many stops into a bar. “Be somebody.”