Woody Grant, played by Bruce Dern, is getting up there.  A life of drinking and misbehaving has left him a little weather-beaten and more than a little confused although he’s never been the brightest bulb.  Convinced that he’s won a million dollars from a publishers’ marketing sweepstakes (he hasn’t) he’s determined to make the trek from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska.  Unable to drive anymore he starts walking but doesn’t get very far before a sheriff’s deputy picks him up.

His youngest son, Daniel, played by Will Forte, picks him up at the police station and takes him home.  Kate, Woody’s wife, played by June Squibb, explains that he got one of those junk mail letters telling him he’s won and he can’t stop obsessing about it.  She and Daniel’s older brother, Ross, played by Bob Odenkirk, want to put him in a home, but Daniel is a little more soft hearted towards the old man, despite a lifetime of neglect.  He decides to drive him to Lincoln over a long weekend.  It’s an excuse to maybe get to know each other better.

The quest stalls in the small town of Hawthorne, Nebraska, Woody’s hometown, when Woody gets sick.  They stay at the house of his older brother, Ray, played by Rance Howard and the family uses the occasion to hold an impromptu reunion.  Woody had a lot of brothers.  Trouble starts when people hear about the million dollars.  They don’t believe Daniel when he tries to explain the situation.  Family members and town folk who remember Woody, including his old partner Ed Peagram, played by Stacy Keach, want a piece of the prize money.  They keep coming up with stories about how they helped Woody when he was down.

The humor in this film is as dry as the dusty over-farmed fields around Hawthorne.  It’s the kind of film that finds humor in a bunch of stoic old men sitting around a TV, watching football and occasionally trying to make conversation.  It mostly consists of “How are you doing, Ray?”  “Oh, I’m good, Woody.  You?”  And that’s all that’s needed to be said.  It’s like a Coen Brothers movie without the crime.  The director, Alexander Payne, definitely has a talent for this type of story.

The centerpiece of Nebraska is Bruce Dern’s performance.  It is a model of minimalist acting, really reacting.  He has no big emotional scenes or speeches; he barely has any lines.  All he does is look at things.  There may be a twinge here or there but not much.  In every close up, though, you have an idea of what he’s feeling.  As the film goes on and you learn more about his past—how he changed after coming back from Korea—how he was so generous, he couldn’t make a go of his auto repair business because he’d do too much work for free—you begin to sympathize with him.  When the people of the town make a big deal out of him, you can see that he’s enjoying the attention although he’d never admit that.

Daniel certainly sees the similarities between him and his father.  After all he agreed to take the old man on this pointless journey.  Will Forte gives an exasperated and poignant performance as a son trying to appease his difficult father while dealing with his own problems.  Bob Odenkirk, as Ross starts off as somewhat heartless but proves just as loyal.

The comic heart of the film is June Squibb, playing Woody’s termagant of a wife.  She doesn’t believe in concealing any truth, no matter how scandalous.  There’s a hilarious scene where they visit the cemetery in Hawthorne and she takes Daniel to one grave after another and gives him the dirt, “Oh, she was a total slut.”

The film has gorgeous black and white cinematography and the completely flat landscape looks blasted and desolate.  It’s a perfect visual metaphor for the lives of these people.  Like one citizen of Hawthorne says, “There isn’t much to do around here but drink.”  These are people who gave up generations ago and are just marking time.

That may seem like a strange setting for a comedy, but hey if you didn’t laugh…


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