Woody (Bruce Dern) is an elderly man who believes he has won a million dollars in a sweepstake. As his father insists on getting to Nebraska to claim his prize, David (Will Forte) decides to help him, and the pair journey across the country to claim a prize that may or may not exist.
Director Alexander Payne has made a name for himself by creating warm, emotional films, and Nebraska is no exception. Bruce Dern gives a beautiful performance as Woody, a man who never really went after anything he wanted in life, until now. Dern plays Woody as a cantankerous, awkward but generous man, and the emotion of the film lies with a man determined to get what he believes should be his. Woody’s story arc is relatively small, but it is hard not to root for a man whose lucky day may have come rather late in life.
Will Forte leaves his cross-dressing days behind in 30 Rock, and delivers a tender and real performance here. Not only is it utterly believable that he is as adrift as his father, but he plays the embarrassed yet hopeful son well, switching effortlessly between the roles of parent and child as he and Dern traverse the country and negotiate some emotional tangles. June Squibb is wonderfully nasty as Woody’s wife Kate, yet she has a strength and tenderness that we only need to see touches of. Bob Odenkirk rounds out the family as David’s brother Ross; the older, more mature and less fanciful brother, and one whose grounding in reality has led to a sensible but uneventful life.
Screenwriter Bob Nelson has mixed a road trip movie with a chance for Woody to go back to his past, for David to understand his father better and for a family forced apart to finally come back together. Nelson also mixes tragedy into the story, as well as some gently satirical commentary about American society. As well as this, there is plenty to laugh at, with the extreme depictions of extended family.
Alexander Payne mixes a stubbornly gullible character with one who is passive but resigned to the fact that the journey must happen. This leads to some astute observations about the nature of father son relationships, as well as a juggling of parent/child responsibilities. It’s a hard act to get right, but Payne manages it well. The trouble with the film, however, is that the 115 minute running time means the pacing in the second act almost crawls to a halt. Not only does this mean that the film loses all momentum, but it also means that Woody and David do as well. However, when the family is united, Woody refuses to let go of his dream, and the duo hit the road again there is enough warmth underlying the entire story for the emotional payoff to be worth the journey.
Nebraska is an examination of small town America, relationships and the past. Dern and Forte work incredibly well together, with Dern giving a wonderfully strong and nuanced performance at the heart of the film. The pacing and running time go against the film, but the emotional payoff is strong, with echoes of Payne’s earlier work.