It’s a nicely-paced character piece from director Alexander Payne, and I’ll even go as far as calling it a bit of a return to form. I liked 2011’s “The Descendants” well enough, but it did get to be a bit schmaltzy and overbearing at times(ultimately salvaged though by a wonderful turn from George Clooney). “Nebraska” doesn’t need any such type of saving because plus it has a trio of super performances, surrounded by a whole lot of excellent support work. Even roles with the briefest amount of screen time are given ample weight. But an excellent 77 year-old Bruce Dern as Woody Grant, along with a surprisingly strong Will Forte as his son, David—plus a mesmerizing turn of perfect comic-timing from June Squibb as Woody’s wife Kate, form the standout leading role triumverate that is the nucleus of this black-and-white family odyssey. “Nebraska” is one of the best times I’ve had watching a movie all year.
Eighty-ish Woody Grant(Mr. Dern, with a late-career shot at his first Oscar statuette)gets one of those ridiculous “sweepstakes” letters in the mail, and is convinced that he’s struck it rich. And no matter how many times his plain-speaking wife(a stupendous June Squibb, who recently turned 84 years young)or his sales clerk fortysomething son inform him that it’s a scam to sell magazines, Woody insists that he’s now a millionaire. Not in the best health, possibly suffering from a bit of dementia, and owner of an out-of-commission pickup truck, Woody decides to set out on foot—from Montana to Nebraska—to claim his seven-figure fortune. After reeling his dad in from the road more than once, Woody’s youngest son David(former SNLer Forte, in a beautifully underplayed turn)decides to take time off from work and drive Woody there himself—if only to prove what a ruse it all is. Stopping by his father’s hometown along the way for an impromptu family reunion, the men are eventually followed by wife/mother Kate and son/brother Ross(“Breaking Bad”‘s Bob Odenkirk, solid as a fill-in local television anchor). With Woody making believers out of just enough folks to think he’s actually won something, he soon encounters episodes of greed, jealousy and compensation expectation. And David learns more personal details about his father than he ever realized he’d know.
Bruce Dern has been getting an awful lot of press for this performance(and a Best Actor Award from Cannes), and I’m thrilled for this 1970’s staple receiving all this fuss. He’s exceptionally good in “Nebraska” and richly deserves all the praise. Will Forte plays off of Dern beautifully in the much trickier role of David. And Ms. Squibb, who appeared briefly as Jack Nicholson’s doomed spouse in 2002’s “About Schmidt” from Mr. Payne, really shines here in the role of Kate—a performance that easily could’ve slipped into caricature. It never does. Screenwriter Bob Nelson’s script is remarkably sharp and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael’s camerawork invokes a melancholic nostalgia. Payne is much closer to his wheelhouse here than he was for the Hawaiian set “The Descendants”. The rural landscapes and snapshots of Americana work to serve his unobtrusive direction beautifully. One of my wife’s friends probably overshot recently by dubbing this film journey “brilliant”. I find that superlative to be inaccurate, but “Nebraska” certainly is pretty damn good. Grade: A-
next review up: “Labor Day”