By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — It’s a melancholic dramedy about a stubbornly deluded character who believes he’s won a million-dollar sweepstakes. But it’s actually the actor playing him who has scored a jackpot.
Bruce Dern is that actor, and he delivers a career-best performance in a career-best role as a cranky geezer wrestling with his own mortality.
Dern plays Woody Grant, an aging alcoholic who sure seems like he might also be battling dementia.
Woody’s wife Kate, played by June Squibb, fatigued from looking after him, feels Woody should be in a nursing home. And one of their sons, Ross, a local television news announcer played by Bob Odenkirk, agrees.
But their other son, David, an empathetic electronics salesman played by Will Forte (best known for TV’s “Saturday Night Live”), begs to differ.
When Woody, often confused and seemingly dazed, comes to believe that he’s won a million bucks because he received a Publisher’s Clearinghouse-type circular telling him that he “could already be a winner,” he sets out from Billings, Montana, where they live, and heads for Lincoln, Nebraska, to collect his prize in person.
He starts out on foot, but David sees a chance to bond with the father he never really got to know, so he offers to push the pause button on his own lackluster life and drive him there.
Along the way they encounter friends, acquaintances, and family members who are intrigued by the possibility that Woody has struck it rich (chief among them Woody’s buddy and former business partner, played by Stacy Keach) and wonder whether they might be deserving of some of his windfall.
Meanwhile, David learns things about his taciturn father that he’s never before been privy to.
Nebraska is an austere black-and-white road movie set in the present, a group portrait of small-town Midwestern life and an extended family that aims not to satirize but to capture — yet sometimes it’s difficult to tell the difference.
Director Alexander Payne (The Descendants, Sideways, About Schmidt, Election, Citizen Ruth), an Omaha native working from a script by the debuting Bob Nelson — the first time Payne has directed from a screenplay he didn’t write or co-write — takes his not-so-sweet time getting his characters to where they’re going, and maybe that’s the point.
But although the film can be critical and poke fun at the folks who live in the nation’s heartland, he’s never really condescending.
It’s been a long time between featured roles in high-profile projects for Dern, who scored an Oscar nomination for Coming Home in 1978 and also co-starred in such other ’70-era films as The King of Marvin Gardens, The Great Gatsby, Silent Running, and They Shoot Horses, Don’t They.
And Forte holds his own, and then some, in an expertly restrained, against-type turn as the grounded, protective son.
So we’ll win 3 stars out of 4 for Nebraska, a bittersweet, starkly beautiful father-son dramedy in which one good Dern deserves another Oscar nomination.