A film that is essentially a male buddy road comedy is not usually expected to have the amount of depth, honesty and resonance you might see in other films. But that's the thing about director Alexander Payne's newest film, NEBRASKA; it breaks all the rules in a way that is neither showy nor pretentious. Rather, its beauty lies in its simplicity.
Bruce Dern plays Woody Grant, a decrepit and perpetually checked out father of two who's just received news by mail that he might be the winner of $1 million dollars. Completely ignoring the fine print in the letter, and throwing all peripheral vision to the wayside, he sets out on foot from Billings, Montana, to Lincoln, Nebraska, where he is convinced his lucky pot of gold will be waiting. When his son David, played by SNL alum Will Forte, finds him walking on the street, he tries to reason with him about his so-called windfall and convince him to come back home. No dice. So, in effort to appease his dad and keep him out of harm's way, David agrees to take the more than 800-mile drive to the Cornhusker State. Little did he know that this would become a defining moment in he and his father's relationship.
The story itself is much bigger than the actual road trip or fabled funds. As indirect and subconscious as his intentions may be, Woody develops a new bond with his son that isn't defined by touching, tear-jerking moments as much as it is punctuated by their poignant silences and unspoken language. Dern and and Forte, at first glance an odd casting duo, complement each other on screen--Forte's dry wit emphasizes the drollness of his dad's ultimate dilemma while Woody's doe-eyed determination and unexpected charm is the heartbeat of the film.
Offbeat characters the two encounter throughout their journey--from David's mom Kate (June Squibb) to Aunt Martha (Mary Louise Wilson) and Woody's spiteful old pal, Ed (Stacy Keach)--pepper the film adding more layers to Woody's story, making him less of a stranger to David. While Woody, and much of the Grant family remain wholly self-consumed by their varied degrees of bitterness and fulfillment, their equal insertion into Woody's possible big break is just the thing to invite an accidental family reunion.
Though Payne's past work has always felt a bit distant to me, here--with the help of screenwriter Bob Nelson--delivers a more personal story about family, discovery and unconditional love--without all the frills. Phedon Papamichael's gorgeous black and white cinematography adds a vintage yet timeless feel to the film that doesn't look overdone. It enhances the authenticity of the story.
While NEBRASKA may not have the large-scale production and staggering performances of other films this year, it manages to create something special from what is naturally finespun. Its purity is what may be most alluring.
Rating: B (***1/2 out of *****)