Alexander Payne’s 2013 Palme d’or nominated film Nebraska is the kind of film I knew I’d love from the start. Will Forte, previously a comedic performer on Saturday Night Live, takes on a dramatic role here as Dave Grant, a mild mannered guy that works at a stereo store in Billings, Montana. His father is Woody Grant (Dern) a grizzled senior citizen with a real attitude. When we first meet the poor old guy he’s walking down a busy highway in the wrong direction. He’s then stopped by a cop and taken to the police station. Dave gets a call and arrives to pick him up. Back home Woody’s loudmouthed wife Kate (June Squibb) is waiting with a barrage of insults for him. It turns out Woody received a sweepstakes letter claiming he won a million dollars and he plans to travel from Montana to the head office in Lincoln, Nebraska to get it. Not being able to drive any longer, he has begun walking on foot, intent on getting to his destination no matter what. Dave knows the letter is just a sham but with Woody being stubborn as a mule he decides to take him there. The two hit the road with plans for a family gathering as well since they’ll be going through Woody’s hometown of Hawthorne.
While passing through Rapid City, South Dakota, Woody, a heavy drinker goes on a bender and accidentally falls and hits his head in their hotel room. After being stitched up at the hospital, it turns out Woody also lost his dentures on the train tracks of all places. It’s here we get a really funny scene when Dave tries to help find them. Their next stop is to see Woody’s brother Ray (Rance Howard) his wife Martha (Mary Louise Wilson) and two goony nephews Cole (Devin Ratray) and Bart (Tim Driscoll). These folks aren’t classy at all, but they sure are fun to observe. At the town bar they run into Woody’s old friend Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach) who finds out about him winning the million. It’s not long before he corners Dave and asks for reimbursement for helping his dad out many years earlier. This just ticks Dave off because he knows exactly what’s happening. Veteran actor Stacy Keach is perfect as Ed, the weaselly moocher.
As they spend time with the Grant family and have various friends congratulate Woody on his good fortune, things soon turn sour. More relatives start circling like vultures trying to get Woody to give some of his winnings away due to “past unpaid favors”. However noone realizes its all untrue and that Dave and Kate are humoring him. We do get more of a sense of Woody and his wife Kate’s past in several scenes where they reminisce about their youth. We also find out Woody was a Korean war vet who was never the same after he came home. This movie could almost be a modern counterpart to Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show in that sense. Woody and Kate’s early lives probably wasn’t too far removed from the characters in that classic film.
Woody is obsessed in his pursuit to get the million and something else he lost in his life. What we know about his character is informed by the people he meets over the course of the film. Dave relays that he wasn’t a good father but almost everyone in his hometown talks about how he always helped people out in his younger days. This is what really gives the movie its heart and soul, those things that make Woody a walking contradiction. You want to know more about who he is. When he talks its either a very funny quip or completely deadpan. I think the choice of Dern as Woody was a brilliant one. He plays the cantankerous old guy with such panache. It was a character written for the right actor at the right time of their life. Will Forte, a guy that made me laugh a lot on SNL does a 180 and plays the good hearted son Dave exceptionally well albeit with a dry humor. A real standout in the movie is June Squibb as Woody’s painfully honest almost crude wife Kate. She is simply hilarious and whenever she’s onscreen she just owns it. Dave’s brother Ross is played by Bob Odenkirk who broke out as an actor recently on the hit cable TV series Breaking Bad. He’s not in the film for a long time but when he’s there he brings a humor, weariness and lived-in honesty to his role.
The cast went on to win Best Ensemble from the Boston Society of Film Critics, while June Squibb won Best Supporting Actress. It also received five Golden Globe Award nominations, six nominations from the Independent Spirit Awards. Bruce Dern and Will Forte received Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor awards from the National Board of Review.