While we all wish that those ridiculous pop-up ads and promotional flyers claiming we’ve won a prize were actually real, they’re always bogus. Yet, there comes a time in an aging man’s life when the chance to be rewarded, and to achieve what you never did, conjures an unrelenting hopefulness, which a scam — no matter how blatant — could ever extinguish.
In Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska,” Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) is that aging man, one who receives a certificate in the mail claiming he’s won a million-dollar sweepstakes. Resolute in claiming his prize, Woody leaves his home in Montana for Lincoln, Nebraska — even if it means walking there.
His wife (June Squibb) can’t handle Woody’s stubborn antics, so she calls her two sons David (Will Forte) and Ross (Bob Odenkirk) to help her out. When they fail to hammer any sense into Woody, Dave reluctantly decides to entertain his father by escorting him to the source of his winnings.
“Nebraska” opens in select theaters this weekend, but is it worth your time? Here are the 10 things you should know about the black-and-white, nontraditional road movie.
1. Will Forte Makes an Impressive Dramatic Turn
It definitely comes as a surprise to find former SNL favorite, Will Forte, co-starring in a drama, and specifically, not as the goofy guy with a weird hobby (remember The Falconer?). You’ll find no trace of MacGruber or Tim Calhoun in his David, a serious role that reveals Forte’s well-rounded talent. In a film where there is a solid handful of laughs (some rather raunchy), Forte is never the one joking. David is an incredibly relatable character, and one that leaves us excited to see more of Forte’s dramatic side.
2. Bruce Dern Delivers a Career-Defining Performance
Bruce Dern may not be as high-profile as other Hollywood legends, like Jack Nicholson or Gene Hackman, but that’s exactly what helps the reticent, stubborn Woody feel so fresh and real. Known more for playing anti-heroes and villains, Dern may seem an unlikely choice for Woody, but his very honest performance in “Nebraska” proves otherwise. Maybe it’s Dern’s unpredictable nature as an actor that lends credence to his very real portrayal of an obstinate man who zones out frequently, occasionally serving up one-word answers. Or, maybe it is simply Dern’s ability to completely embody Woody, pulling in universal elements of our parents and grandparents, so that, on some level, by the end of the movie we feel that we really know him.
3. Alexander Payne Knows How to Capture Emotional Rawness
Payne, best known for “The Descendants,” “Sideways,” and “About Schmidt,” has a knack for capturing the honesty and rawness of human behavior. In “Nebraska” each character expresses his or her emotional struggle, one that reflects whatever point it is in his or her life. Woody, a kind-hearted alcoholic-in-denial, longs for freedom and peace in what may be his final years; David, the unsuccessful son working at an electronic store, can’t seem to get a handle on his life and future; Woody’s wife, Kate (Squibb), is sick and tired of putting up with her husband. Disappointment, regret, guilt, hopelessness, faded love, indecisiveness, inescapable stasis: these are all feelings we know, have known, or may know one day.
4. The Use of Black-and-White Is Very Fitting
“Nebraska” feels like a film stuck in the recent past (in a good way). A good deal of that feeling comes from the movie being shot in black-and-white, an aesthetic in which contrasting light and dark hues enhance the richness of emotions portrayed on-screen. With color stripped away, the characters and their stories become the sole focus; there’s nothing to visually distract us.
4. Bob Odenkirk Is So Saul
Maybe we’re still experiencing “Breaking Bad” withdrawal, but Bob Odenkirk is, and (for us) always will be, Saul. He gives a good performance in “Nebraska” as Ross, David’s older and more successful brother. Ross is the stabilizing glue that holds the unpredictable Woody, the softer David, and the bad-mouthing Kate together. While Ross never dons a goofy-colored suit and tie, we can’t help but see the dirty “Breaking Bad” lawyer in Odenkirk’s exasperated tone and wild hand gestures. Also, did anyone else pick up on the fact that (spoiler!) Nebraska is where Saul ended up? Maybe his new identity is as Ross, the local news anchor… hmm.
5. While It’s a Drama, It’s Also Very Funny
The beauty of “Nebraska” is that it draws a great deal of comedy from the tragedy and humor of everyday life. It never tries to tell an unwaveringly serious story. Payne relies on realism, reminding us that nothing in life is wholly dramatic or funny. For instance, one scene has Woody and David searching for Woody’s lost dentures along train tracks. While that’s a funny-sounding setup, the scene is grounded by the fact that Woody lost his teeth as a result of his alcohol problem.
6. There’s a Hilarious Cemetery Scene
While visiting Woody’s hometown, David, Kate, and Woody go to his family’s burial site. This would-be somber moment quickly turns hilarious as Kate shows her true colors — and even shows some skin when she flashes a grave stone. As she introduces each of Woody’s dead family members to David, she mentions what she most fondly remembers them for, and it’s endlessly entertaining. Squibb is shockingly (and amazingly) crude, but her behavior never feels forced or one-dimensional. She’s a rambunctious, inappropriate old woman, and she’s just real.
7. It Has a Very Unfair ‘R’ Rating
We’ve seen PG-13 movies far more deserving of an R rating. While “Nebraska” has some inappropriate and colorful language that earned it an R, it’s unfortunate that a movie almost completely devoid of ill or offensive motives like this is restricted to a 17-and-up audience. If your teenager really wants to see it, you can feel confident in buying him or her a ticket.
8. It’s a Shining Exploration of American Greed
There are two types of people in “Nebraska”: those who congratulate you when they hear you’ve won a million dollars, and those that scheme to get a cut for themselves. There are more of the latter in “Nebraska,” specifically Woody’s old friends and close relatives. While good ol’ American greed is shown through the shameful extents some of the characters go to claim their share, Woody’s dedication to his prize is the furthest thing from it. He doesn’t brag about his money or flaunt the idea of being a potential millionaire; in fact, he doesn’t seem to care about the money, just the few things it will give him that he failed to acquire in his life. “Nebraska” is really about a man nearing the end who is trying to make up for lost time, his losses, and life’s disappointments.
9. There’s a Solid Supporting Cast
“Nebraska” is a great showcase of older actors in some fine supporting roles. Stacy Keach plays Woody’s former partner and old friend, Ed Pegram, who turns out to be not-so-friendly; and Mary Louise Wilson (who you may have seen on “Louie” as Louis C.K.’s recently outed mother) and Angela McEwan give warm supporting performances as small-town Nebraska folk.
10. It’s Great for an Older Audience
Exploring themes of reflecting on a life in old age, making up for past disappointments, and getting toreally know the family you thought you knew, “Nebraska” is a mature film that will resonate with older audiences. This year has had a good handful of worthy dramas for adult audiences (“12 Years a Slave,” “Dallas Buyers Club,” and the upcoming “August: Osage County”), however, “Nebraska” is one that really zones in on aging and family. While it may not be as high-profile or commercial as any of those movies, it’s a noteworthy addition to this year’s list of best movies.
This article was originally featured on Moviefone on November 14, 2013.