Opens Fri., Nov. 22 at Guild 45th. Rated R. 115 minutes.
How many of us open those e-mails from disinherited Nigerian princes or the “You May Already Be a Winner!” sweepstakes letters that once clogged our parents’ mailboxes? That such a missive launches our elderly hero on a foolish quest to claim $1 million in Nebraska gives the movie a vintage quality. Woody (Bruce Dern) is plainly deluded, like Don Quixote; and there’s the possibility that this cotton-haired, ex-alcoholic Montana geezer is also senile. His son David (Will Forte) becomes the enabler/Sancho Panza figure on their trek to Nebraska, where Woody expects to get his prize.
There is a lifetime of regret and bad parenting to reveal in Nebraska, one reason Alexander Payne sat on the script for a decade. Given the obvious parallels to his 2002 About Schmidt, the wait was a good idea. Yet Nebraska is a gentler, more comic road movie, and more forgiving of its hero. Jack Nicholson’s insurance executive was then a successful bastard; Dern’s car mechanic is now an unsuccessful bastard. And Nebraska comes with a more left-field pedigree than About Schmidt, based on a novel by Louis Begley: It’s the first produced screenplay from Bob Nelson, a mainstay on KING TV’s Almost Live! comedy show during the ’90s. Nelson based it partly on his family upbringing in the Great Plains, where those big skies and vast fields make a man small. Self-importance is ridiculous against such scale, yet Payne finds plenty of bulging egos to lance. Everyone must be leveled, but softly, to meet the horizon.
About Dern. A contemporary of Nicholson, he had his career zenith during the ’70s, which so informed Payne’s early taste. Dern’s been chasing this script for 10 years, and was rewarded with the Best Actor prize at Cannes this spring. At 77, this is his last trip to the fair, his Oscar shot, and he knows it. For Woody, too, his triumphant return to Hawthorne—en route to the sweepstakes office in Lincoln, Nebraska—is his last hurrah. Supposedly a prospective millionaire in his old hometown, he’s a big shot at last, grander than his bullying old business partner Ed (Stacy Keach). If the locals mistakenly gush over Woody’s good fortune, and if his own family, the Grants, come begging for riches, he enjoys the acclaim. He’s somebody, not just an old coot who can’t even drive anymore. Given this role with very few lines, Dern marvelously conveys a shy, stubborn pride, a sense of grubby vindication against a lifetime of scorn and defeat.
Stuck in a dead-end job, recently dumped by his girlfriend, David both does and doesn’t understand this. “What’s the harm in letting him have his little fantasy?” he asks his mother, who staunchly opposes the trip. David sees a father/son opportunity to bond—and the same brief escape from Billings (filmed to look as ugly as it is). Saturday Night Live pegged Forte as a comic actor, but like Dern he knows this is a rare opportunity, and he seizes it with the same quiet conviction. Something like George Clooney’s lawyer in The Descendants, David is a guy who learns the value of listening.
There is a danger here that Nebraska, shot in black-and-white, with its shuffling old hero, could get sticky with pathos. But neither Payne nor Nelson believes that suffering confers nobility. Passing by Mount Rushmore, Woody scoffs, “It’s just a bunch of rocks.” His family is full of buffoons, as gleefully noted by Woody’s wife, the movie’s salty truth-teller. Kate (June Squibb) cheerfully defames the dead, ridicules Woody’s lottery dreams, and gives zero fucks about offending anyone. And yet she’s quietly loyal to her husband, with or without his million.
With its mix of delusion, decency, and dunces, Nebraska is a little slow for my taste but enormously rewarding in the end, one of the year’s best films. Perhaps more than any other American director, Payne understands the power of silence. There’s a moment when the humiliated Woody reclaims his sweepstakes letter from a bar full of yokels that’s as sad as anything I’ve seen at the movies. Then their mocking laughter slides into an awkward hush, and they feel ashamed. Woody takes the letter and heads out the door. His journey isn’t over yet.