Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) receives a flyer from a marketing company in the mail informing him that he has won $1 million in a contest. Woody believes this announcement to be true and wants to set out to Lincoln, Nebraska, to claim his prize. Woody no longer drives, so he sets out to walk from his home in Billings, Montana. A state trooper brings Woody back home. Woody is so insistent on going to claim his prize that his son David (Will Forte) finally agrees to drive him to Lincoln. David thinks it would be a nice drive, an opportunity to spend some time with his dad, and visit the small Nebraska town where the family once lived. Woody’s long-suffering wife Kate (June Squibb) and his other son Ross (Bob Odenkirk) are less sympathetic than David.
When Woody and David arrive at the town where they lived and stay with some family members for a few days, they send for Kate and Ross, who drive down to join them.
From a screenplay by Bob Nelson, acclaimed director Alexander Payne (“Sideways,” “The Descendants”) makes “Nebraska” a road story in which David comes to a greater appreciation of his father. Woody, now in his 70s, appears to be suffering from some dementia. Often he stares off into space. He still enjoys stopping at a tavern and having a beer. As David talks to people in the small town, he begins to see more dimensions to Woody. David discovers that Woody was a good, but flawed man. He was known for his generosity and remained faithful to Kate for 42 years. Maybe there’s more to Woody than the “old geezer” that he appears to be. If nothing else, Woody’s desire to claim his million dollar prize has given him a purpose in life that he has lacked.
“Nebraska” is not as good as Payne’s previous works. But, like them, his movies are character-driven and bring surprises. “Nebraska” requires patience. It’s not fast-paced. But neither are drives across the Great Plains nor small-town Midwestern life.
During the course of their journey, David begins to see his father not as just an old man to be humored, but someone worthy of respect. As with the folks in the small Midwest towns they encounter, there’s nothing at all glamorous or exciting about Woody. Life is not easy in the bleak Nebraska towns and farms, beautiful shot in black and white by cinematographer Phedon Papamichael. Yet there’s a dignity in Woody. In turn, others ridicule him for his naiveté; others want a portion of his fortune.
Even though David knows that his father will never see the million dollars, David does not want his father to be disappointed when they get to Lincoln. Without giving away the ending, it will bring a smile to your face.
Bruce Dern, a character actor in Hollywood for decades, gets the role of his career as Woody. Often his eyes are vacant-looking, like someone who is about to nod off. Yet there’s a stubborn determination in him and a triumphant look in his eyes at the end of the movie. Will Forte, best known as a comic performer on TV’s Saturday Night Live, is wonderful as David, moving from humoring his father to loving him again. June Squibb, another veteran character actor, steals every scene she’s in as Woody’s wise-cracking wife. At first, it’s easy to think that she doesn’t care about Woody at all; gradually you realize that she does indeed love him.
Alexander Payne’s films are filled with flawed people. At first they’re easy to dismiss. Yet, somehow Payne manages to find the goodness in them and allow them to find redemption. That’s a very Catholic sentiment.
Tom Condon, OP