Film Review- ‘Nebraska’ (****1/2)

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Woody Grant (Bruce Dern)- The prize winner of Billings, Montana.
Woody Grant (Bruce Dern)- The prize winner of Billings, Montana.

“Nebraska”  ****1/2  (out of 5)

Starring: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Bob Odenkirk, Stacy Keach

Written by: Bob Nelson

Directed by: Alexander Payne

**CAUTION- POSSIBLE SPOILERS**

Have you ever driven through Nebraska?  If not, I’ll illuminate the scenery for you.  There’s a lot of corn.  Not to disparage the Cornhusker State by any means, but if one were to choose a film to best represent the experience of driving through this land, I think many would begin by visualizing a black and white palate.  I’m certain there is more to the state than that, but the experience of the film “Nebraska” is rather similar.  On the surface, it’s a deliberate, uneventful film where not much actually happens, and the main character is a cranky geriatric.  As he is wont to do, however, director Alexander Payne reveals to us yet again a brilliant, if understated underbelly to his film, resulting in another odd yet satisfying entry, deserving of its’ Oscar nod as one of the best of 2013.

Bruce Dern (yes that Bruce Dern) stars as Woody Grant, a retired and weary man who’s suddenly found a higher calling beyond frequent attempts to escape his nagging wife (June Squibb).  Woody is caught, multiple times, trying to walk from Billings, Montana, to Lincoln, Nebraska in order to claim what’s he believes is rightfully his- a million dollars.  After all, the mail he received specifically names him, and says he’s already won.  Most of us have been inundated with junk mail of the same sort that Woody receives, but he doesn’t (or doesn’t want to) read the fine print.  Even the protestations of his sons David and Ross (Will Forte and Bob Odenkirk) can’t persuade Woody that his quest is for naught.  However, David’s dead-end life brings him to a point where he decides, against reason, to take his father to Lincoln.  After all, he might as well- nothing of importance is happening in his life, and he feels the need to give Woody something to look forward to, something to do.

Despite the film’s deliberate start, it reveals itself to be more than simply a road tale about a cranky old man and his son.  On the way to Lincoln, they stop in Hawthorne, which happens to be Woody’s hometown.  It gives them a chance to see some family, and Woody a chance to see his old business partner Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach).  Despite his son’s plead not to, Woody spills the beans about his newfound “wealth”.  Some pleasant souls in this town are genuinely pleased for Woody, and some, like Ed, line themselves up to pilfer him.  At first the requests are polite, playing off Woody’s confused visage and advanced age, but as the buzz of his fortune spreads, they become more stern and threatening.

At this point in the film, though, the money becomes less the issue and shifts to who Woody really is.  Is he the bumbling, cranky alcoholic from the first part of the film, or the exhausted, hard-working, good man who never said no to helping someone?  The truth is that he’s all of those things.  Woody is actually self-aware, and knows what he wants.  He knows he’s made mistakes, and we see him flinch with shame when he’s reminded of his past.  He also knows not to gloat when his big moment comes- and it does in the most sensible and satisfying way.

Payne has proven to be something of a savant when it comes to giving us films that require the audience to peel back layers for a deeper meaning.  “Nebraska” is no different- slow to develop, but still crisply edited, crafty in its’ humor, and emotionally satisfying by the time credits roll.  Bruce Dern is exceptional as a weary but sly senior and Will Forte is effective (for the first time in a dramatic role that I’m aware of) as a lonesome son.  June Squibb, however, nearly steals the movie.  Whether she’s scolding unscrupulous relatives, gracefully telling a white lie, or grounding the film with her hometown manner, it’s a revelatory, Oscar-worthy performance. 

I’m aware that this type of film would have a difficult time garnering an audience, but “Nebraska” is the type of movie I wish more people saw- funny but not tugging the laughs out of the audience, satisfying while not feeling forced.  There’s more grin-worthy moments in the last five minutes than most ‘blockbuster’ films offer in two hours.  I imagine the next time I drive through the titular state I’ll think fondly of this film, and the landscape of corn will be far more bearable.

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