I think everyone, even the most sensible among us, has at one point or another dreamt of winning the lottery. It’s a fantasy that everyone indulges in; even if you don’t enter sweepstakes or pick lucky numbers, at some point you have allowed yourself the luxury of indulging in “what if” scenarios should you come into a large sum of money. Would you still work? What would be your first purchase? How would you provide for your family? For most of us, this is nothing more than idle daydreaming – a momentary distraction from the humdrum beat of everyday life.
In Nebraska, director Alexander Payne’s latest film, Woody (Bruce Dern) believes that this dream has become a reality, thanks to a sweepstakes letter that he received in the mail. A lifelong alcoholic with the early stages of dementia, Woody refuses to listen to the objections of his wife Kate (June Squibb) or his two sons, David and Ross (Will Forte and Bob Odenkirk), that this is all a scam to sell magazines and that there is no million dollar prize; in Woody’s mind, if the prize company wrote it, it must be true. He makes several attempts to walk to Lincoln, Nebraska from his home in Montana to collect his prize, only to be repeatedly foiled by his concerned family. Kate and Ross are ready to put Woody in a home, but David decides to accompany his father on this quixotic journey. The somewhat estranged pair hit to road, stopping in Woody’s hometown for a family reunion, with Woody steadfast in his belief that he is a millionaire and David placating a father that he doesn’t really know.
Gorgeously shot in black and white, Nebraska is a small story that seems large thanks to the wonderful performances of its cast. Dern, who has made a career out of being the heavy in films, is cantankerous and hard as Woody, but there is an undercurrent of regret and disappointment that is bubbling just under the surface. Dern doesn’t try to make Woody likeable and by all accounts it seems like he was a less than ideal father and husband, but you can’t help but feel sadness that he is hell-bent on a fool’s errand. I’m at the age where my peer group has had to address the prospect of our parents’ mortality and as ornery as Woody is, I couldn’t help but feel a little pull at the heart with his diminishing faculties and dependency on his children. He’s a broken man who has lived a broken life and Dern delivers a fantastic performance.
I was curious how Will Forte would do in a more serious role; many a comedian has dipped his toe in the world of drama with mixed results, but Forte was actually very good. His MacGruber heritage made me skeptical, but he gives a sweet and patient performance in Nebraska. David hasn’t had a great life either, but he has enough compassion for his distant father that he can understand that this quest means more to his father than simply the promise of a million dollars. Woody’s dignity, pride and squandered life are all in play here and though his relationship with this father is strained, he wants to help Woody see this thing through. It is a quiet and restrained performance that I didn’t know that Forte was capable of.
As Woody’s long suffering and loud mouthed wife Kate, June Squibb threatens to steal just about every scene that she’s in. Woody wasn’t the easiest man in the world to live with, but Kate didn’t necessarily make their situation any easier with her complaining and frank observations. Kate has no patience for this foolishness that her husband had gotten involved in and has no problem broadcasting her opinion. She’s hilarious and terrible all at the same time. A great supporting performance. Bob Odenkirk and Stacy Keach also provide a solid foundation for the movie in their smaller roles, as does the interesting cast of characters that compromise Woody’s family and friends in his hometown. David’s two cousins Cole and Bart in particular are fantastic.
Nebraska is not your typical holiday film and there aren’t necessarily any real happy endings; the film ends on a somewhat happy note, but it is a fleeting one. Woody is a frustrating man and remains so until the final frame, but David and the viewer feel like they understand Woody a little bit better over the course of the journey. The decision to release the film in black in white is a smart one; this is a stark story and the contrast helps illustrate the rawness and simplicity of the story. It takes a hard and real look at family dynamics that does not try to soften the edges with sentimentality. To put this in Seinfeld terms, no one hugs and no one learns a lesson. These people are who they are, but Nebraska poignantly doesn’t ask them to change or improve. The film is simply a quiet look at one dysfunctional family that has a real sense of place and character. It’s a road trip worth taking.