'NEBRASKA' (R) (3 1/2 STARS)
Written by Bob Nelson
Directed by Alexander Payne
Actors: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Bob Odenkirk, Stacy Keach, Rance Howard, Mary Louise Wilson.
In gorgeous black and white we see an elderly man walking aimlessly down a street, looking disheveled and lost. We will find out that this man is named Woody Grant. We are also seeing the start of a performance by one of out national treasures in cinema. Bruce Dern has always been seen as a supporting character actor. When he tried to stretch as a leading man with 1973's "The King of Marvin Gardens" his quest failed. That movie became a curio and a cult movie but Bruce Dern has always given great performances no matter the role. Now with "Nebraska", Dern gives his best performance of his career as a lead character. You can tell he has been licking his lips for decades for this opportunity and he hits a home run!
Bruce Dern plays Woody Grant, who believes he has become a millionaire when he is sent one of those marketing letters telling him he may have the winning number to win millions. His son David, played by Will Forte, tries to convince his old man that this is a scam. Woody, who lives with his wife in Billings, Montana, wants to go to Nebraska, where the letter came from, to collect his money. Woody is stubborn and dementia is starting to sink in and he won't listen to his son so David will take a road trip with his father to Nebraska. His wife Kate, June Squibb, is a great match for Woody even though she berates him and calls him crazy and lazy. Woody will go with David to Nebraska and on the way they will visit Woody's old town where he used to live and where he will try to settle old scores.
As Woody visits the town he used to live in the word spreads that Woody is a millionaire and Woody's creepy twins, his old partner(Stacey Keach) and old friends come out of the woodwork asking for money. "Nebraska" deals with small towns where living is easy and people just want to relax and just live. "Nebraska" is beautifully shot in black and white by Alexander Payne who just relaxes and let's us soak in the atmosphere. The screenplay by Bob Nelson is very deadpan but also brilliant and hilarious. I laughed out loud a lot during this movie and I was amazed that the movie treated it's characters so honestly and didn't ridicule them. A lot of writers would have poked fun at these simple town folk because let's be honest, movies about small towns and the South are usually full of stereotypical rube type characters in Hollywood.
Director Alexander Payne and writer Bob Nelson love Woody, his family and all these people. The movie successfully captures the simple beauty of the country, the small stores, the hole in the wall type bars. There are some priceless lines of dialogue and some wonderful, tender moments and this movie wouldn't have worked without it's wonderful cast of actors and their performances. Bruce Dern has acted in some iconic movies and given such wonderful performances but this is definitely his best performance of his career. He does not have much dialogue but when he does speak he carefully delivers each line with precision and poignancy. June Squibb is his equal and her performance is a hilarious gift of put downs but also some nuggets of honesty. Kate is not afraid to speak her mind and when she does I laughed my butt off! Squibb just might run away with Best Supporting Actress at the Oscars, she is pitch perfect and steals the movie.
I also was surprised by the wonderful performance by Will Forte as David. I wasn't surprised that he was capable of a great performance in something substantial. I know Forte could become a great actor but I was surprised that he would give such a deep and measured performance that would be Oscar caliber. He works wonderfully off of Dern and I hope to see Will Forte tackle more big roles in more movies in the future. There are also some great supporting performances of well written characters by Bob Odenkirk and Stacy Keach as Woody's old partner who wants the money Woody still owes him.
This is Alexander Payne's best movie since "Sideways" and it reminded me of his other movie dealing with old people "About Schmidt" but this is deeper, more entertaining and ten times better. I also found this to be just right in it's focus and much more compelling than Payne's "The Descendants". It is beautiful to look at, charming, poignant and downright hilarious. The performances are beautiful and this movie won't insult a much older audience's intelligence like the terrible "The Book Thief" did. This movie could have gone so wrong but Payne and writer Bob Nelson care about their story and it's characters. Then there is Bruce Dern who I couldn't be more happy for getting a lead role that displays how amazing an actor he is. I love actors and the feeling I have watching a performance of a well written character by someone as great as Dern, that was long due in a movie like Nebraska", lifts me up and touches me.