Friday, March 14, 2014


Meet Woody Grant. He’s an incredibly damaged old man, though he doesn’t seem to be aware of it. After a lifetime of drowning in booze and hurting his loved ones and friends, he finds himself in his golden years, saddled with a wife he doesn’t particularly care for, father to two sons he doesn’t really know much about and living an existence without a point until the one day he receives a letter in the mail stating that he has won $1 million.

Well, technically it says that he’s won the dough provided he has the winning numbers, but he doesn’t pay much attention to that part. He’s decided that this is a sure thing, and he doesn’t want to trust the mail with something as important as this; he has to go to their HQ in Nebraska, where he intends to collect his million in person. The only problem is, no one will take him. He doesn’t have a driver’s license (it’s never explained why, but it’s heavily suggested that it was taken away from him due to a series of DUI’s), so his only choice is to walk.

The police keep bringing him back, but like a POW in a WWII prison camp, he’s got a one-track mind: escape. His wife Kate chews him out. His son, Ross, gets angry and starts suggesting that the old man needs to go in a home. The only one who feels sorry for him is Woody’s other son, David. David’s kind of a broken man, himself. He ekes out a living selling Bose speakers. His longtime girlfriend just left him. He’s a recovering alcoholic. He worries about his father, but when he sees that Woody isn’t going to give up, he decides to take a few days off from work to drive his father to the sweepstakes office in Nebraska. (They live in Montana.) Awkward humor and depression ensues.

Whenever you hear anything about NEBRASKA, it’s all about Bruce Dern’s masterful performance as Woody. Sure enough, Dern kicks a lot of ass. He nails the lost, inattentive old man perfectly, all at once vulnerable and a downright motherfucker. But in all reality, this is really David’s story. Played as a loveable, good-natured loser with the best intentions in mind by Will Forte, it’s not just a road trip to Nebraska. This is a journey of discovery. About himself. About his father. About his family.

David doesn’t really know much about himself or anyone else. He really wants to go to Nebraska so he could spend some time with his father. Woody’s getting up there, and who knows how much time he’s got left? David wants to know more about the man he calls “dad,” to find out where he, himself came from.

He learns quite a bit. Over the course of the film, he meets Ed Pegram, an old friend of Woody’s, who fills him in on how much of a deadbeat Woody really is. In an old cemetery, he stands with his mother as she points out all the graves of Woody’s parents and brothers, pointing out the sibling that David was named for, a poor boy who died at a very young age in the same bed as Woody. (She also points out the graves of people who tried to get in her knickers back in the day, the perfect, hilarious counterpoint to the melancholy of the dead. June Squibb, who plays Kate, brings a wonderful mixture of sternness and vulgarity to this film. You can’t get out of this scene without laughing awkwardly.)

David gets to see the house where his father grew up, an old, broken dwelling unfit for a bum. In many regards, it’s the wilting shadow of Woody. David also encounters an old girlfriend of his father’s and is shocked to find that her and his mother actually fought over his father. From her, he learns a bit about his father’s time in the army during the Korean War.

And then there’s the rest of the family. You see, they hear that Woody’s won a million bucks, not knowing that he’s actually being scammed. Now they’re looking back over the years of misery he’s caused them, and they all want a piece of the fortune, especially Ed Pegram, who says Woody owes him ten grand. (Ed’s played by the incredibly awesome Stacy Keach, with a dab of tough guy and a wallop of smug assholishness.) Soon, it becomes apparent that David doesn’t have anything in common with these people. He and his brother Ross, polar opposites, come off as the most well-grounded people in the movie. (Ross is played by Bob Odenkirk. He’s an ambitious guy, even though it’s a little bit late in his life to get what he wants. He comes off as a hard-ass with a heart of gold, especially in the scene when he and David decide to get their father’s air compressor back from Ed, a debt that has been 40 years in the making.)

Director Alexander Payne has his work cut out for him. It’s hard to take this hodgepodge of humor, tragedy and feel-good story and make it all stick together in a cohesive manner. This is the kind of thing that David Lynch could handle without a problem. The same for the Coen Brothers. Then again, Coen, Coen and Lynch are some of the greatest filmmakers alive today. Payne doesn’t have nearly the experience they do.

(Come to think of it, it would be really interesting to see what the Coens would have done with this movie. Same for Lynch. It’s exactly the kind of material they would go with, if only in their different ways.)

Thankfully, Payne is so familiar with the story that he might as well have written it himself. (He didn’t. The screenwriter’s name is Bob Nelson.) At first, the humor is rather dry, but once you get in sync with the film, you’ll laugh yourself hoarse, especially in scenes where others would be horrified, like the scene in which David and Woody are looking for Woody’s teeth, which he lost while in a drunken stupor by the railroad tracks.

NEBRASKA is beautifully shot with special attention paid to the environment. At first, it feels like Payne might be trying to pad out the movie, but as soon as you start feeling engulfed by the landscape, you know it’s worth the time. You feel like you’re there with the characters, even though everything is in glorious black and white.

There’s just one problem: the title is kind of bland. OK, so Nebraska is Woody and David’s destination, and as a result, about three-quarters of the movie happens there. But it’s just too generic for the story. It’s a small complaint, though. NEBRASKA is an excellent film. It’s great to see Bruce Dern back in action, even though he can’t hear much and he staggers, rather than walks. It’s even better to see Will Forte in a role like this. We all know he can do comedy, but now we know that he can play a little bit of tragedy, too. NEBRASKA is great. It’s not for everybody, but it should be. We might all end up like Woody some day, whose only purpose in life is to cash in a form letter for a million dollars. Everyone should give it a shot. Most will find it worth their time.

(Here’s a little trivia for you. You might recognize Woody’s brother, Ray. That’s because he’s played by veteran character actor Rance Howard. Both he and Dern appeared several times on GUNSMOKE. Come to think of it, they were in THE ‘BURBS together, too. Small world.)

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