“Nebraska” Movie Review

     A viewing of director Alexander Payne’s new film “Nebraska” will remind you of the golden age of film, a time when technology was limited and the very best films relied solely on memorable characters and solid writing.  Shot in glorious black and white, “Nebraska” has all of these important attributes and more, featuring an older mature cast and a story, though in present day, that is both simple and full of life.  I haven’t enjoyed a movie experience more this year, which isn’t to say “Nebraska” is the year’s best film, rather it succeeds in putting a smile on your face from beginning to end.  If you allow yourself to be immersed, Payne uses a unique setting, creating an atmosphere not unlike “Fargo” in that these are people who have worked hard for a very long time, in some cases barely getting by, while living a simple routine life in small Midwest towns.

     In a fine role which brings justice to a film and television career that began in 1960, Bruce Dern plays Woody Grant, an aging recovering alcoholic who believes he has won a million dollars.  Problem is, the letter he received is only a ploy to get him to buy magazine subscriptions (think Publishers Clearing House), a fact his wife, Kate (June Squibb) and his son, David (Will Forte) are more than willing to tell him, though with different levels of compassion.  Woody announces to those close to him that he intends on going to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim his prize and will do so even if he has to walk.  An early attempt at this ends with Woody found walking on the side of a highway by local police with the intention of making it the entire 900 plus miles on foot from his home town of Billings, Montana to Lincoln.

     Squibb is a hoot as Kate, a wife who seems to have tired of Woody’s antics and is looking to put him in a rest home, much to the advisement of their older son, Ross (Bob Odenkirk).  David, their younger son and a salesman at a local electronics store, has more patience and sees no issue with his dad playing out his fantasy.  This leads to the two of them going on a road trip to complete Woody’s quest to get his money.  Bob Nelson’s outstanding script offers plenty of supremely timed scenes which take advantage of the comedic side of both characters.  David wants to use this time to be closer with his father, as he knows he won’t be around forever, but Woody is crass and seemingly oblivious to everything going on around him.  He loses important things and is always falling down and injuring himself, which temporarily derails their trip with a resulting stop in the town he grew up in, Hawthorne, Nebraska.

     This is a town where everybody knows everybody and it’s only a matter of hours before all of Woody’s prior friends and acquaintances are congratulating him for his new found fortune.  There are also “vultures” as Kate puts it, with some of Woody’s checkered past coming back to haunt him in the form of old business partners and greedy family members.  The Hawthorne scenes are some of the film’s best, as they generate a number of get togethers with several of Woody’s brothers who he hasn’t seen in years.  The conversations these characters have while watching football games or having dinner are priceless as they define comic gold in the subtlest of ways, while also demonstrating the values passed on from generation to generation.  You never feel as though you’re watching a comedy, as Payne ensures the tone remains the same throughout and lets the actor’s performances create the film’s funnier moments.

     While Dern and Forte’s performances get us from one place to another, the true heart of the film comes from Squibb and her performance as Kate.  She steals every scene she’s in, portraying the tough as nails keeper of her family.  She stands up for what’s right and isn’t afraid to put anyone in their place who dares attack her husband.  Payne’s expert direction allows Dern and Squibb to play off of each other in several key scenes where their age definitely shows, especially in one scene where the suspense level raises a bit while at the same time allowing the audience to realize how hilarious the situation really is.  Similar to David O’Russell, Payne is on a significant role with his last couple of films.  Like the director’s “Sideways” and “The Descendants”, “Nebraska” gives us a genuine and thoughtful look into characters we care about.  The film talks plenty about how difficult the recession was for many of the people who live these small American towns, yet in the end, we focus on one singular character who’s instincts and morality tell him how important it is to leave something behind for his children before he dies.  If that means walking to Lincoln, Nebraska, that’s exactly what he will do.  GRADE: A