Alexander Payne, best known for Sideways and The Descendants, returns two years after the latter was nominated for Best Picture as well as a number of other awards. I really did not enjoy The Descendants, having gone in with big expectations based on my love for Sideways, it was a disappointment. Luckily, Nebraska is a vast improvement, and it is all thanks to Bruce Dern.

Bruce Dern is Woody Grant, the grizzled, old, alcoholic, who seems to manage to sneak off despite his slow gait and Alzheimer-like mentality. It is rare to see an old actor reenter the limelight of Hollywood after not being too huge of a star for quite some time, his last (and only) Oscar nomination was in 1978. Yet, Dern makes Woody real. We meet Woody walking along the highway, trying to get to Lincoln, Nebraska because believes he has won a million dollar sweepstakes. His son, David, played by SNL alumnus Will Forte, picks him up at the police station. Nobody actually thinks Woody has won the prize, they think it is a scam, but as a means to appease his father and shut him up, David decides to drive him to Nebraska.

Thus begins a somewhat futile journey that is filled with accidents, drinking, old relatives, and bonding. Woody is so desperate to get to Nebraska, and he will stop at nothing to get there. Their traveling is waylaid by a stop in a town the family used to live in where there are still some relatives remaining. Once there, and once word gets out of Woody’s apparent new millionaire status, people start to try and take advantage of Woody. He becomes a celebrity over night, and due to his younger-self never turning anybody down and always helping out, people immediately bombard him with requests for old debts to be paid and any other sort of way they can get a dime out of him, showing how fast some people’s view of you changes when you have gained money.

Filled with Payne’s smart and deadpan humor, Nebraska stands up to his other works, but it is Bruce Dern’s performance that makes it come out above the rest. He has made the role his own, becoming that old man who thinks that the only thing that will make him happy is a new truck and a new air compressor. It is Dern’s swansong, a grand performance that deserves to be noticed and rewarded accordingly.

Will Forte brushes off his stereotypical comedy roles and steps into something a little more dramatic for the first time ever. It is a great first dramatic performance, portraying the son of a man who he shares a number of qualities with, who hardly gets by selling TV’s and speakers. He wants nothing but to make sure his father is safe and ok, and he delivers outstandingly.  I hope he continues to take more of these roles.

The supporting cast is also solid. Bob Odenkirk of Breaking Bad fame plays David’s brother, and the two of them share some funny moments, but of the supporting cast it is the mother Kate, played by June Squibb, who is nominated for her role, that is most memorable. She is foul mouthed and unfiltered, hilariously spouting stories of her younger years when she was the envy of all the boys in town.

Filmed in black and white, the movie could be considered more beautiful because of it. The landscapes of the Midwest are haunting and open, yet they remain beautiful with the wind sweeping over the grass. It is hard to imagine this movie if it were in color, there’s just something so unique about it that color could have potentially ruined it, this is sort of akin to The Last Picture Show.

Yet the movie is never really about the destination or whether or not Woody will get the million dollars, it is about the process of David coming to understand Woody; it is about the bond between a father and son; it is about family and the importance of standing together and never abusing each other’s fame or wealth for personal greed.

So, go see this movie if you want to see probable award winning acting, a great story, a smart and funny comedy, and a reminder that the journey is often more important than where you are trying to go.

  • Nebraska (