In the funny, poignant and thought-provoking Nebraska, a Montana geezer named Woody (Bruce Dern) gets a sweepstakes come on in the mail and believes that he has actually won a million dollars. Unwilling to accept the explanations from his loved ones, Woody is determined to get to Omaha to claim his fortune – by walking if necessary. His son David (Will Forte from Saturday Night Live) decides to drive him, and their journey takes them through Woody’s tiny Nebraska hometown.
At first, we see that Woody is bitter, drinks too much, is sometimes addled and drives his loved ones crazy. As the story progresses, we learn that Woody’s bitterness is rooted in frustration of his modest aspirations by both circumstance and by his own shortcomings. And we see David longing for a relationship with his father that he had never thought possible before. David makes a valiant effort, but Woody is long past any sentimentality. In Nebraska, director Alexander Payne (Sideways, The Descendants) has another triumph of endearingly flawed characters.
There are many laughs in Nebraska, the funniest coming from Woody’s wife’s salty exasperation, David’s repellant cousins and the hilarious theft of a generator.
The acting is outstanding. Bruce Dern deservedly got an Oscar nomination. It’s a character that is revealed to be more and more complex. Is he demented, or is he in denial, or is he lying? Some of each for sure, but it’s always hard to tell. Dern has stated that he called upon his own experience with unsupportive parents to play the film’s most searing scene, in which David takes a reluctant Woody back to see Woody’s now abandoned childhood home. June Squibb, who play’s Woody’s wife, was also nominated for an Oscar; indeed, she gets to deliver most of the funniest lines.
But there are two other exceptional performances that I don’t want to overlook. As the son, Will Forte plays Woody’s straight man. It’s a far less flashy role – and perhaps more challenging role. But Forte lets us see past the son’s stoicism to his pain, embarrassment, frustration, determination and love.
And Actress Angela McEwan has the tiny part of the small town newspaper publisher. She just gets one brief exchange with Forte and then a second scene where she looks at a truck driving past. That look is one of the unforgettable moment in cinema this year.
Finally, my parents were from Nebraska, and I have spent plenty of time in the state. I must say that I have NEVER seen such a dead on take on small town Nebraska and Nebraskans. If you see Nebraska, you really don’t need to visit the real Nebraska to capture the full experience.
I found Nebraska to be an exceptionally evocative family portrait, and I’ve liked and admired it the more I’ve thought about it. One of my Best Movies of 2013 and nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, it is available on DVD from Netflix and Redbox and streaming from Amazon Instant, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube, Google Play and XBOX Video.