Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) is a 77-year-old addlepated alcoholic whose brain is so damaged that he’s convinced that he’s struck it rich after getting a mass-mailed letter announcing that the recipient may have won a million dollars in a magazine sweepstakes. As a result, he sets out, alone and on foot, from Billings, Montana to collect his grand prize in Omaha, Nebraska.
Once it’s clear that the cantankerous curmudgeon can’t be talked out of his foolhardy endeavor, Woody’s son David (Will Forte) decides to drive his father there. This doesn’t sit well with Woody’s acid-tongued wife, Kate (June Squibb), who doesn’t want to waste her time indulging the old coot’s nonsense.
However, in spite of the futility of the quest, the pair’s ensuing trip across four states does prove fruitful. Not only does it afford father and son a chance to spend some time together, they also get to reconnect with long-lost friends and relatives whom they visit along the way.
Eventually, Kate and their elder son Ross (Bob Odenkirk), join them en route, and the long trip becomes a family affair. However, it’s hard for them to forget that the outing has been initiated by a fraudulent marketing scheme.
Still, sometimes getting there is all the fun, as is the case with Nebraska — a nostalgic road trip that unfolds against the barren backdrop of the heartland’s crumbling infrastructure. The film was directed by two-time Oscar-winner Alexander Payne (for writing Sideways and The Descendants) whose decision to shoot the picture in black-and-white was a stroke of genius.
The lack of color emphasizes the absence of hope in a rural region that has been devastated by the failure of its factories, farms, and subsequent deterioration of life in small towns. It’s no wonder, then, that some of the poor souls the Grants encounter along the way seize upon Woody’s pipe dream as a way of alleviating their own misery.
Bruce Dern’s performance is destined to be remembered during awards season. Nebraska is a lighthearted character study which, ironically, offers a cold sober look at the downsizing of America’s midwest.
Excellent (****). Rated R for profanity. Running time: 115 minutes. Distributor: Paramount Pictures.