Nebraska

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Robin Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Robin Clifford 
Nebraska
Laura Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Laura Clifford 

Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) is a crotchety old alcoholic living with his nagging wife, Kate (June Sqibb), in Billings Montana. One day, he receives a marketing sweepstakes prize notice that says he has won one million dollars. Woody believes the “claim” and becomes obsessed with making the journey to the sweepstakes offices three states away, After he tries repeatedly to make the long journey alone, his son, David (Will Forte), finally agrees to take the old man to collect his winnings in “Nebraska.”

Robin:
Nebraska-born Alexander Payne teams with first-time scripter Bob Nelson with a story that is firmly anchored in America’s heartland. Woody is in the early stages of dementia so when he receives the promo “winning ticket” he actually believes he won a million bucks. He becomes single minded, as many with the affliction do, in his obsession and David sees taking his dad on the journey is the best thing to do, David very quickly learns that he is wrong.

“Nebraska” is, besides being an odd buddy road movie, an examination of life in small town middle America. As the odd couple traverses the great distance between Billings and Lincoln Nebraska the weekend arrives and the boys find themselves in Hawthorne, the town where Woody grew up. His arrival in town and the news about his “big win” brings the denizens out to greet him, like his old friend Ed (Stacy Keech). But, the greeters, especially Ed, all have an ulterior motive – they believe they are entitled to part Woody’s good fortune.

Helmer Payne presents his mid-west world in stark black and white as we go into the homes of Woody and Dave’s relatives and friends. “Nebraska” captures the taciturn nature of small town America. My father’s side of the family is from Maine and we spent a lot of time sitting in various living rooms up there with family. Conversation, to say the least, was always sparse – why use ten words when one will do? Payne shows this small town sensibility perfectly.

The filmmaker uses real townsfolk as his actors and the result is a film grounded in the reality of small town life. Bruce Dern plays the crotchety geezer perfectly and Will Forte, as son Dave, is his foil.  Dave thinks he can control and guide his father on their journey but he soon figures out he cannot. The father-son dynamics remind me of my relationship with my own father toward the end of his life as our roles often reversed..

“Nebraska” is a slice of Americana that is amusing but also quite poignant. It is not the same America as when I was young. The hopes as dreams we once had for our future has been replaced by the reality of a fast-shrinking middle class that has a hard time existing, never mind advancing I give it a B+.

Laura:
Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) moved his family to Billings, Montana, years ago.   Then the now somewhat addled senior gets a Publishers' Clearing House notice telling him he's won a million, and no one in his family can convince him otherwise.  When his youngest son David (SNL's Will Forte) finds his dad trying to walk to the prize office for the second time, he tells Woody he'll take him to "Nebraska."

After leaving his home state for his last two films, director Alexander Payne ("Sideways," "The Descendants") returns in more ways than one.  This may be his first feature shot in black and white (cinematographer Phedon Papamichael's first short was shot in that format), but it's clearly Payne's oeuvre, another road movie and a kin of Payne's superior "About Schmidt."  This time a son discovers his father rather than the father finding himself while women continue to be the sexual aggressors.

Woody even shares a wife with Schmidt in actress June Squibb whose Kate is on her last nerve dealing with her beer-swilling taciturn husband.  'I'm going to put him in a home' is a frequent declaration of Kate's, 'His mother spoiled him,' another.  She's a hilariously unfiltered sparkplug beside herself that her boys cater more to their distant dad than their hard working mom.  She's astonished that David is actually going to give in to Woody's crazy whim and drive him all the way to Lincoln, but when she learns they've been waylaid en route, Woody needing stitches after a drunken episode, she arranges for them to stay with Woody's brother Rupert's family back in his hometown of Hawthorn and takes the bus to meet them.

Up until this point, David's mostly been herding dad, finding his teeth on railway tracks, dragging him out of every available tavern.  Now he's faced with trying to stem the tide of local legend when Woody announces he's a millionaire.  This brings Woody's past out of the woodwork, some of it quite astonishing, most of it family and former business partners looking for dubious paybacks.

Writer Bob Nelson's original script paints a bleak heartland where men obsess over their machinery and women rule the roost. David, who sells electronics, is chided relentlessly by his cousins over the amount of time it took to drive there while Woody's former partner Ed Pegram's (Stacy Keach) fabled acquisition of his old compressor becomes a symbol of manhood stolen and regained.  Only Woody's older son, Ross Grant (Bob Odenkirk, "The Spectacular Now," AMC's 'Breaking Bad'), has any kind of ambition, recently having become a local news anchor.  Meanwhile the women are so sexually frank, one attributes it to life on the farm until Kate reminds she was 'always a city girl' when not telling her menfolk about how every male in the county tried to get into her knickers.

Payne juggles comedy both overt and dry as dust (the nine assembled Grant brothers), but by film's end he's achieved a pathos for the lost life of his anti-hero as seen through David's eyes.  David heads to The Hawthorn Republican to stop a story on his dad's prize and meets the widow who runs it.  Peg Nagy (Angela McEwan) repaints dad's background with new colors (and the actress speaks volumes without saying a word during the film's climax).  A family visit to dad's original crumbling house includes a bumbling side trip while one brief aside by Woody in his parent's bedroom hints at a most unhappy childhood.

Dern, his hair a wispy fright, gives Woody the unique quality of being very there while not all there.  He's determinedly vague, forging forward with head in the clouds, shafts of lucidity occasionally peaking out.  Forte's merely OK, his initial concern pretty indistinguishable from his late understanding, but the ostensible star is outshone by Odenkirk, who creates a deeper, truer character with less time on screen.  Stacy Keach makes for a fine wolf in sheep's clothing while Kevin Kunkel and Devin Ratray ("R.I.P.D.") are the Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum of underachieving gearheads.

"Nebraska" is a chuckle funny film (with occasional Squibb fires) with an undertow of melancholy. It may not be Payne's best, but it settles in and stays long after it's over.

B+
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