Woody Grant is an old coot with long, wispy white hair that shoots off in every direction. His nose hair is as thick as his beard (I worried whether it would cause him to have trouble breathing). Bruce Dern, best known for his starring turn in Silent Running and decades worth of supporting roles as eccentric characters, plays Woody with such nuance that it doesn't even seem like acting. He expertly presents him as an ornery man likely touched by dementia.
They won't let Woody drive anymore, so he leaves his home in Billings, Mont., to walk to Lincoln, Neb. Seems he received one of those Publishers Clearing House-type letters stating that he HAS WON A MILLION DOLLARS if he has the correct code number, and Woody intends to collect it. His outspoken wife, Kate (June Squibb), has repeatedly told him that the letter is phony, but he won't listen. His sons David (SNL vet Will Forte), a stereo salesman whose live-in girlfriend just moved out, and Ross (Bob Odenkirk, Saul from Breaking Bad), an aspiring TV news anchor, argue over what to do with Dad. Mom and Ross want to put him in a nursing home. David doesn't, and eventually decides to take a few days off and drive Woody to Lincoln and clear up the millionaire thing once and for all.
Nebraska is a road trip movie directed by Alexander Payne (The Descendants, Sideways, About Schmidt and Election) from a screenplay by Bob Nelson. Shot in black and white (gray and lighter gray, actually) to better accentuate the bleakness, the film is populated mostly by people who are vacuous, quietly miserable or insufferable. It's a downbeat mix of comedy and drama that takes its own sweet time to get rolling. The focus is on Forte and Dern: David has always longed for approval from his dad and hopes the road trip will allow them to grow closer. But Woody spends most of his time in silence, apparently off in his own world. When he connects with our shared reality, his prime concern is his own agenda. He appears to barely notice David.
As with most road movies, the journey is the destination, and a substantial stretch of the movie is set in Hawthorne, Neb., where the men make an unplanned stop in Woody's hometown that turns into a reunion, with June and Ross coming to town to join the dour festivities. We meet a number of Woody's relatives, old friends, flames and acquaintances, including former business partner Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach) and ex-girlfriend Peg Nagy (Angela McEwan in a transcendent performance).
Woody's tale of his pending wealth spreads quickly through the small town, making the old man the center of attention. Then the gold diggers rear their heads. It builds, slowly, to a number of notable scenes that range from touching to comically absurd.
I didn't laugh nearly as much as the majority of the audience at the screening. In addition to being distracted by Woody/Bruce's alarming nose hair, I wondered if I would become addled one day (I was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in January and dementia is not uncommon as the disease progresses.) I also wondered whether Payne and Nelson's parade of sad, angry, inane, lost and/or insufferable folks was an indictment of rural communities or humanity in general. When the goings-on were at their sourest, I reminded myself that kind soul Peg Nagy was living a fulfilling life in the midst of it all. Nebraska almost succumbs to ugliness but eventually finds its footing and pays off. Not with a million dollars, but with a few fleeting moments of satisfaction.