In 2011, writer-director Alexander Payne won critical acclaim and an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for his Hawaii-set dramedy The Descendants. So expectations were extremely high for his Midwest-set follow-up, Nebraska. But once more, Payne dug into the lives of a dysfunctional but loving family, and came up with a bittersweet narrative that is darkly hilarious, and deeply heartfelt.
The screenplay by Bob Nelson centers on the quest of Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), an old drunk who has again and again proven a disappointment to his wife Kate (June Squibb) and his two grown sons David (Will Forte) and Ross (Bob Odenkirk). But it seems Woody has a chance to make amends when he gets a letter in the mail proclaiming him a millionaire. All he has to do is turn it in at the company's headquarters in Nebraska. Having long ago lost his license, Woody entreats his wife to take him. But she points out it's just a sweepstakes to sell magazines, he has won nothing. Woody persists, wandering off along highways, willing to walk from Billings, Montana, to Nebraska if need be.
Having little tying him to his routine aside from a low-level job and a bored ex-girlfriend, David takes pity on his dad, and decides he will drive him to Nebraska. Along the way, they stop by Woody's hometown, where he reconnects with old friends, family, and foes. But when Woody mentions he's to be a millionaire, things turn ugly as everyone demands a cut, citing some long-forgotten debt. With Woody being too addled to understand, David, who is beginning to see a new side to his dad's life, must step up and stand up for his father.
Shot in crisp black and white, Nebraska seems simple at its start. But it's given incredible depth by its astounding cast. Dern's performance is the one that is getting the loudest acclaim, and understandably so. Woody is--for lack of a better word--senile, but must still be present enough for the audience to connect to him as a character, and Dern handles that balance beautifully, giving us flashes of the Woody who hides behind the mist of almost constant confusion. Forte, who is best known for outrageous comedy as a Saturday Night Live veteran, shows he can handle something more subtle and dramatic. David's tenderness towards Woody feels so sincere it is heartbreaking. Alternately, his interactions with his arrogant older brother and conniving cousins crackle with hilarious electricity.
While these two play gentle souls, Squibb gives the film some welcomed sharpness as the no-nonsense matriarch. After his years spent as a drunk, Kate clearly and loudly resents Woody. But when the family of four reunites in his hometown, there's an unexpected healing that wouldn't land if not for Squibb's delicate turn from nagging wife to Woody's defender. This culminates in an ill-planned heist with the always-funny Odenkirk in tow that makes for the film's funniest sequence.
In the end, Nebraska explores the double-edged sword of family, melancholy and celebratory at various turns. But despite it's touching on regret, resentment, and greed, this thoughtful comedy leaves you feeling lighter by focusing on the good at the heart of its doddering hero. And I suspect it's the kind of comedy that will just grow richer with re-watchings and age, being so beautifully woven with scenes about the innate silliness of everyday life from distracted conversations with family members to the simple and extreme things we do for love.
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