Middle America is often lost in the heap of locales depicted in movies. These places don't have the famed skylines of a New York City, but they are valuable in their own right. Mud and Fargo pleasantly changed that course, portraying regionals as people with stories of their own rather than serving as plot devices.
Yet too often films set in small towns are done so with the elitist attitude that everyone living in fly-over states are nothing but hicks. In reality, those who don't live on coasts have a more complicated relationship with their setting than one would think.
Director Alexander Payne's latest protagonist has such a relationship.
Constantly horn-pecked by his wife and disoriented from his constant boozing, Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) has very little to look forward to in his golden years. He doesn't see his kids much, he still scrapes by on small painting jobs and he doesn't even have a running vehicle to his name. A letter from Publisher's Clearing House changes all of that. For a majority of Woody's life he hasn't had anything, but now is his chance and he's going to grab it with both hands.
In order to claim the million-dollar Mega Sweepstakes Marketing prize, Woody has to get to Lincoln, Nebraska within the week. His wife, Kate (June Squibb) refuses to play along with what she sees as one more delusional quest. She's convinced Woody is losing his mind and has persuaded their oldest son, Ross (Bob Odenkirk) that he is. Their youngest, David, is less sure of his father's insanity and more prone to pity him.
David Grant (Will Forte) leads a meager existence as a stereo equipment salesman and after being left by his girlfriend, he has little to hang around for at the moment. At his father's insistence David goes along to "be somebody" with his old man. The father-son roadtrip gets interrupted from their quest at a small town in central Nebraska, where Woody grew up and has some family and acquaintances to placate and scores to settle.
Once the promise of a fortune is introduced, and Woody's plans how to spend his 1 million spread around town, old debts come out of the woodwork. Old friends like Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach) as it turns out, have kept meticulous records of what they're owed. The colorful cast doesn't end with old friends, even cousins Bart and Cole (Tim Driscoll and Devin Ratray) have plans on Woody's million. The attention comes as a source of irritation to David, but Woody is quite enjoying the spectacle.
It seems everyone is as willing to believe in Woody's fortune as he is.
As intriguing as a newfound fortune is, the cash prize is quickly made secondary to the father-son story at the heart of Nebraska. David's time around his father's hometown leads to some unknown tidbits about his father's past and the life he could have lived.
You know your parents your entire life, but it's hard to truly know what it is that goes on inside their heads. It's easy to lose sight of the fact that while your parents may always seem like they have the right answers, sometimes they let life slip out of their hands. Woody is one such man who feels like he has long since outlived his usefulness on this Earth.
By choosing a black and white color scheme, Alexander Payne and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael enhance the natural, stark beauty of the land. In a way the dated color scheme says a lot about these little towns as well. Each boarded-up diner and abandoned self-service gas station points to a dying way of life.
Payne's last two efforts were focused on the coast of California and Hawai'i, but with Nebraska, the auteur returns to the roots of middle America and the people who inhabit it. In telling Woody Grant's story, led by Dern and Forte, Payne delivers an honest and heart-felt depiction of an all too unseen part of the country.
Forte, most recognized for his run on Saturday Night Live and MacGruber downplays the role of David, nudging the spotlight past himself and onto Dern, but he definitely does not go unnoticed. At 77, Bruce Dern has never been better. A character actor known for supporting bits his entire life, Payne hands him the role of a lifetime and Mr. Dern runs with it.
Art mimics life and in Dern's showcase performance he's waited his whole life for, Woody Grant gets his due.