The indie film scene is thriving these days, as evidenced by this droll yet heartfelt road picture directed by Alexander Payne (About Schmidt, The Descendants). Handsomely shot in black and white on a tiny budget, Nebraska stars a whiskery Bruce Dern as Woody, a peevish old coot who has received one of those “you may already be a winner” notices in the mail and is convinced he’s won a million bucks. A long-time alcoholic who doesn’t drink much anymore, Woody is sliding towards senility and stubbornly keeps setting out – on foot, no less – from Montana to Nebraska in order to claim the prize. His harpy of a wife keeps threatening to stuff “the crazy fool” in an old folk’s home, so the younger son, David (Will Forte, of SNL fame), decides to drive his dad the 800 miles to Lincoln.
David knows it’s a scam, but just wants to show his dad some kindness while he’s still alive. David also decides to stay at his dad’s brother’s house for a family reunion while en route. It’s the place where Woody grew up, and so this becomes a road picture with an extended layover in a small town full of folksy Nebraskans.
Hard of hearing and sometimes hard of thinking, old Woody tries, with some success, to reconnect with his past. And once word gets out that he’s supposedly a millionaire, the reactions of long-ago friends and many relatives run the gamut from “happy for ya!” to “how about some money for me?” Unaware of the chaos he’s creating, Woody ultimately provokes unexpected understanding within his own family as David learns a surprising amount about both of his parents and how they ended up the way they did.
Much like the Coen Brothers got into trouble with some critics for allegedly condescending to the rural folk in Fargo, Payne has been accused of the same offense for this film. The fact that he’s actually from Nebraska doesn’t seem to matter much.
The politically correct may find some of this mean-spirited, but much of the film’s laugh-out-loud comedy is refreshingly honest and unsentimental. And sharp as the writing is, equal credit goes to the actors. Dern has already won for best actor at Cannes and is tipped for a career-topping Oscar nomination. Stacy Keach is surprisingly good here, playing an old business partner of Woody’s with a mean streak that doesn’t stay hidden long. And little-known June Squibb, who plays Woody’s take-no-prisoners spouse, is the Wife of Bath with a taser for a tongue. Clear-eyed and bittersweet, this is a road trip well worth taking.
(Nebraska continues at the Odeon)
Stars Bruce Dern,
Directed by Alexander Payne
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