"Nebraska" Review: Craig's First Take

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An aging, booze-addled father makes the trip from Montana to Nebraska with his estranged son in order to claim a million dollar Mega Sweepstakes Marketing prize.
3.5

If your slightly out-of-it parent came to you saying they won a million dollars off Publisher’s Clearing House, how would you react? Most likely what you’re imagining is a much sadder scenario than the people behind “Nebraska” have cooked up. Part quirky comedy, part drama about getting older, director Alexander Payne (“Sideways”, “The Descendants”) and an entire cast do a fantastic job creating an amusing film.

Bruce Dern (who won a best actor prize at Cannes for this role) plays Woody Grant, an older man we first see trying to walk from Montana to Nebraska to collect the million he’s won. Instead the cops pick him up. Mom (June Squibb) and his older son (Bob Odenkirk) want dad put into a home but the more caring David (Will Forte) knows dad just wants one last hurrah so he loads up the car for a road trip, which takes an unexpected turn for a reunion at Woody’s brothers place in Hawthorne. Mom and older bro soon reunite with them.

Funny, eccentric characters abound. Dern is perfect here, very reminiscent of his role of Bill Paxton’s father on “Big Love”, as this crabby, pathetic, old alcoholic. Woody is essentially a bastard, his track record as a father and husband is suspect (his reason for even having kids is “I like to screw”, which says alot) but Dern also finds layers to this character that make him more sympathetic as the film goes on. Squibb is an award-worthy scene-stealer though as Woody’s barb-tongued wife, his biggest critic and also defender.

And SNL’s Will Forte more often than not becomes an excellent straight man. After “MacGruber” and “The Brothers Solomon”, one would never expect acting work as good as this. The characters around Hawthorne also gave me a smile; ones who are exuberantly nice, the lazy, redneck cousins who think driving under the 100 mph speed limit is for pussies. These people represent a part of America that seems both glazed-over with the routine of, and wowed by anything not happening within, the small place where they live.

Screenwriter Bob Nelson’s characters reminded me a bit of Coen Brother eccentricity, but they also become a bit more endearing. Payne decided to shoot this film in black and white and it actually does seem to fit really well, just as much a drab window into the souls of sad characters as it is into the monotony of their lives and how the Midwest has been hit hard by the economy. The movie touches on the sadness of aging, taking a trip down memory lane, and of course father and son learning to understand each other but mostly the people in it stand out so much more than the story itself.