A different kind of road-trip movie: Alcoholic Bruce Dern and son journey to a strange place in ‘Nebraska’

January 4, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Jan. 4, 2014

At the start of director Alexander Payne’s new film, Nebraska, a stubborn and elderly alcoholic is bent on traveling from his home in Montana to Lincoln. Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) is convinced that by doing so, he can claim a million-dollar prize he has won through the mail from a sweepstakes company.

Woody’s wife, Kate (June Squibb), knows that this is a scam. So does his elder son, newscaster Ross (Bob Odenkirk). So does his other son, David (Will Forte), a salesman who has been spinning his wheels at work and at home; we see him failing to close a sale on a home stereo system and failing to persuade his long-term girlfriend that he’s made a mistake by moving out of the apartment they used to share.

Woody and David have a lot in common. Like his younger child, the Grant paterfamilias is adrift and ambivalent about the circumstances and direction of his life. If Woody, with his uncombed white hair and slovenly dress, is more battered than David, that seems to be mainly because the elder man has had more years to accumulate dents and bruises.

So once Woody makes it clear that he intends to travel to Lincoln by hook or by crook, David decides to indulge his father. Over Kate’s loud protestations, the pair set out on an 850-mile road trip to the state capital of Nebraska.

After some misadventures, Grant père et fils stop in the (evidently fictitious) Nebraska farming community of Hawthorn, where Woody and Kate grew up, and which remains home to family and friends they evidently haven’t seen in about 20 years.

Woody and David settle in for a few days with Aunt Martha and Uncle Ray (I forget which is Woody’s sibling and which the in-law). Martha is a gracious hostess to them, and to Kate and Ross, who travel in for a brief reunion. Ray and Woody, however, seem to be locked in a contest of who can say the least.

Then Woody lets slip the reason for his and David’s trip, and word seems to spread to everyone in Hawthorn in a matter of hours. The news that Woody is rich, or about to be, piques the interest of Martha and Ray’s heavy-set, doltish sons, Bart and Cole (Time Driscoll and Devin Ratray, respectively), along with other family members. It also arouses the avarice of Woody’s former business partner, Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach).

All of these characters want some remuneration for the good deeds they did for Woody in the past, and their not-so-subtle solicitations get David, Ross and Kate pretty hot under the collar. So does the fact that almost no one seems to accept their protests that the million-dollar prize is fictitious, a scam.

Like any movie about a road trip (and/or a family reunion), the events in Nebraska bring out the true nature of many of the characters. Unfortunately, some of these arcs are more interesting, and more convincing, than others. Several of the Hawthorn residents are revealed to be out-and-out finks. The cause of Woody’s increasingly obvious decline gradually becomes evident. And David finds a bit of a spark within himself — or maybe I should say he finds the motivation that leads him to orchestrate the film’s climactic scene.

Alas, while Nebraska has some affecting characters and touching moments, things just don’t quite gel. Writer Ben Nelson hasn’t seemed to have thought through just who he wants Kate to be or what he wants her to represent; Woody’s wife transitions from selfish, nagging shrew to bawdy gossip to loyal matrimonial defender to comical dissembler as the moment demands, inducing a certain amount of whiplash.

Like Kate, the movie itself defies categorization: It takes the form but seems to defy the spirit of an oddball buddy road-trip film, it has a few too many light-hearted comic flourishes to qualify as a true black comedy, and it’s too dark to work as a straight-up drama.

Sometimes, a movie can hit a wide range of notes and work. Here, however, I got the sense that Payne and Nelson just weren’t entirely sure what kind of film they wanted to make.

Dern’s performance is outstanding, and the rest of the group, especially Forte, Keach and Angela McEwan in a bit role as a journalist, do great if understated work. I also enjoyed getting a glimpse of small-town life on the northern prairie.

But sadly, Nebraska is of more interest as a sociological sketch or a character study than it is as a dramatic film. Nebraska is a curiosity, and an intriguing one — but in the end, it’s also a disappointing one.


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