The journey of Woody Grant begins and ends with a notice in the mail that he is a $100 million dollar prize winner. As played by the wonderful Bruce Dern, Grant is elderly and not all there, a man who can come across as either sweet or prickly, depending on his mood.
We sense that Woody’s letter is a scam, as most of us have received such a letter, with a gold symbol, our name printed in thick black ink, declaring a newfound fortune. We sometimes overlook the small print that alerts us that a magazine subscription, or attendance to a seminar is required for eligibility to receive our millions. For most, this form of manipulative junk mail gets a quick toss in the trash but for Woody, it motivates him to go on walks towards the state hundreds of miles from his home where his prize supposedly awaits him.
After being caught more than once walking aimlessly toward Nebraska, Woody’s son David (Will Forte) takes pity on his dad and decides to drive him there. The idea is that the trip would be a bonding experience and a chance to indulge his dad in a fantasy that couldn’t be true. Or could it?
Alexander Payne’s first film since The Descendants is likable and funny, with many enjoyable moments. It’s also too lightweight and obvious in its attempts at crowd-pleasing to be the intended, probing depiction of America’s fading heartland. Filmed in black and white, it aims to be an ode to America’s past, lost towns and forgotten dreams, much like the brilliant, black and white The Last Picture Show. The black and white photography in Nebraska has and elegance, poetry and lived-in texture that the screenplay lacks.
There’s much to treasure here, even as it’s more entertaining than smartly constructed as a story. I was taken by Woody and David’s journey but always reminded that I was watching a story with fable-like qualities. The lack of plausibility and heightened reality might be the point, as the tale can be taken as an allegory. Yet it kept me from buying entirely into the film’s version of reality and made me wonder if the screenplay was based on a short story.
Dern’s performance is deceptively layered: Woody initially seems lost, with a dried-up memory. Over the course of the journey, we see telling reveals of who this man was and why he was liked and hated by so many. Dern does wonders with the part.
Forte is best known for playing MacGruber, both on film and in Saturday Night Live, but casting him against type in a serious turn is one of the best things about the movie. His unlikely presence feels right from the start, as we recognize the nice, unassuming family man he is. Forte anchors the film and could have a career in character roles outside of farce. There’s also memorable turns from Stacey Keach, a fantastic actor with as long and versatile a career as Dern, and June Squibb, milking her sassy bit as Woody’s long suffering wife.
Still, the movie lacks the scope, passion and razor sharp satire of Payne’s The Descendants and Election, his best films to date. I mean this in the most complimentary way: his latest is more like About Schmidt, as the high caliber acting and skilful filmmaking elevate a contrived story. Like that film, Nebraska is a road trip comedy and wouldn’t have worked without the persuasive performances from the actors.
Payne’s latest may not cut as deep as previous efforts but he’s still a filmmaker who brings out the best in his actors. Nebraska grew on me so much, I even enjoyed the final scene, a capper that’s both fitting and highly unlikely.
Score: *** (1-5 Star Scale)