Movie review: 'Nebraska' is as real as it gets

For the News-DemocratNovember 29, 2013 

What It's About

A revelatory road trip between a grumpy old man and his son, "Nebraska" works on several levels. First and foremost as an exploration of family ties and the people who shape us; the film's harsh black-and-white landscape of the heartland says much about small-town America; a nostalgic glimpse into the past; and the bittersweet realization that there is a time for every purpose under heaven.

Under Alexander Payne's wily direction, the comedy-drama is a sharp character study with splendid performances, and a couple deservingly on the Oscar shortlist. We know these people. We are these people.

The fresh script by Bob Nelson, a 57-year-old South Dakotan, percolates with authentic dialogue, deadpan and wickedly funny humor, and believable situations. Nelson nails the rural milieu, and his perception of senior citizens, and their middle-age children, is acute.

Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) is raging against the dying light. A retired mechanic, whose alcoholism caused family issues, he is convinced he won a million dollars in a sweepstakes, and wants to pick up the check in Lincoln, Neb., which is 850 miles from his current home in Billings, Mont.

His son David (a remarkable Will Forte) finally gives in, thinking this might be a good time to bond with dear old Dad before dementia grabs hold for good. They take off, and a meandering adventure begins. A stop in Woody's hometown of Hawthorne in central Nebraska complicates the journey, as news leaks of Woody's supposed good fortune, and the first back-slapping people start lining up for handouts.

Details of Woody's early years emerge, and son discovers more about his dad -- who has never said much -- than he ever knew (the good and the bad).

Performances

At 77, Bruce Dern delivers the performance of his career. Sure, he was known as a formidable villain in "The Cowboys" and "Black Sunday," and earned his only Oscar nomination as the cuckolded husband in "Coming Home," but he's never shown this much subtlety and depth before. Underneath his unruly hair and miserable demeanor, Dern gives Woody a poignant dignity. It's all there in his eyes -- sadness, regret, confusion, frustration, joy.

Will Forte ("Saturday Night Live") plays the dutiful son whose humdrum life isn't exactly what he dreamed of, but he's forging ahead, trying to be a stand-up guy. Bob Odenkirk ("Breaking Bad") plays his more successful brother, and more distant son, Ross, a local TV news anchor.

But the breakout star of the film is Vandalia-born June Squibb (Grandma on "The Ghost Whisperer"), 84, surely a frontrunner for Best Supporting Actress, as Woody's long-suffering, nagging wife Kate, a tough-talking, shrill retired hairdresser. With her shocking tart tongue and running commentary gossiping about all the relatives, she commands every scene she's in, and it's clear she runs the family. Exasperated by Woody's senility, she wants to put him in a home. (When she called him a "dumb cluck," she reminded me of my grandmother.) Their complex relationship is revealed slowly but effectively.

Noteworthy is that one of the big oaf cousins is played by Devin Ratray, who portrayed Buzz McAllister, Kevin's older brother, in the first two "Home Alone" movies.

What Works

Walk into any Midwestern town, and you'll find these ordinary folksy characters. The dialogue features old-timey phrases that senior citizens use, and rings true throughout. The artistic lens of cinematographer Phedon Papamichael adds much to the visual experience. Payne, a Nebraskan whose films often focus on life-altering journeys ("The Descendants," "Sideways," "About Schmidt"), knowingly conveys the detours of life. Bob Nelson's script leaps off the page.

Numerous scenes abound where they tell us something visually, adding to the richly textured quality of the film -- such as the exchange in the dusty newspaper office, or all the brothers watching TV together.

What Doesn't Work

Some may feel this film mocks the hardy Heartlanders who populate the middle of this vast country, but I prefer to think of it as a realistic and loving portrait of friends, neighbors and relatives that hits very close to home. We laugh out loud in recognition, not derision.

One of my favorite films of the year, "Nebraska" is certain to be among my Top Ten, and is surely in the awards season mix.

4 stars out of 4

Director: Alexander Payne

Starring: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Bob Odenkirk, Stacy Keach

Length: 1:55

Rated: R for some language

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