Well known for his mixture of laughs and tenderness, Alexander Payne’s new feature Nebraska follows in the footsteps of his previous work, mixing a tender story of family going through a difficult time with a few appropriately placed laughs.
Bruce Dern in a brilliant performance, stars as Woody Grant, a lovable but cranky old coot who, after receiving a magazine offer in the mail claiming he could be the winner of a million dollars, sets off on a long walk to collect his winnings. It’s not the first time he’s run off and his wife (played wonderfully by June Squibb) calls up her sons to go and pick up the wondering old man. David (Will Forte), the youngest of the two siblings, feeling sorry for his dad, offers to drive him across a few states to collect the non-existing winnings, a trip that solidifies not only David’s relationship with his father but highlights what a broken man he is. He returned from war a damaged man and he never quite recuperated, bending over backwards to help those around him and turning to booze as a coping mechanism, a combination of things which didn’t make life growing up in the Grant household easy.
Part road trip story and part family drama, Nebraska is a warm, funny and very touching tale of family standing together through the best and worst of times and a reminder that regardless of how well we think we know our family, there are always secrets that never come to the surface and which directly affect our lives. Shot in stark black and white through Middle America, Nebraska feels both current timeless, a story of everyman with relatable characters that aren’t quite what they appear on the surface. Kate, Woody’s wife, is likely the best example of the kinds of characters that inhabit Payne’s movies, a woman who on the surface seems to be just as grumpy as her husband. She comes off as a one note character but when she arrives in town for an impromptu family reunion, we really get a good sense of the woman she is: loving and caring but a woman who has been dealing with a difficult husband for so long that she’s at the end of her rope.
Peppered throughout Nebraska area a collection of other friends and family that offer insight into Woody’s troubled past and each is just as nuanced as Kate though some only have a few moments of screen time while others a far more developed. There’s a sense that these are real people and places and that Woody’s story is just one of a million others with similar fates.
On the surface, Nebraska is exactly the movie the trailer sets it up to be, a sweet story of an old man on the road to collect his winnings, but as it typical of Payne, it’s also an insightful and endearing story of family and their inner workings.