‘Nebraska’ Review: Bruce Dern, Alexander Payne Deliver Nuanced Portrait of Small-Town Life

Payne’s latest meets at an unexpectedly powerful crossroads between hazy optimism and clear-eyed nostalgia

Moving but not overly sentimental, enlightening without stooping to platitudes, “Nebraska” contemplates the loss of the stout Midwest that once formed America’s backbone through the eyes of one of its survivors.

The story of an aging alcoholic who enlists his son to help him retrieve $1 million in prize money, Alexander Payne’s latest meets at an unexpectedly powerful crossroads between hazy optimism and clear-eyed nostalgia. Alternately a poetic tale of personal affirmation and a plainspoken metaphor for tenacity in the face of meager hope, “Nebraska” is not just a beautiful or great film but an essential one for our time.

Bruce Dern (TV’s “Big Love”) plays Woody Grant, a boozy retiree who becomes obsessed with going to Nebraska after a sweepstakes letter arrives in the mail announcing that he’s won a million dollars. His son David (former “Saturday Night Live” player Will Forte) eventually volunteers to drive him from Montana, if only to stop him from trying to walk there on his own. But after Woody drunkenly injures himself, David makes a detour to their home town so that Woody can recover before the company’s home office reopens on Monday morning.

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See video: Reuniting with friends and family for the first time in decades, Woody becomes an overnight celebrity when he announces his winnings. But after his father gets besieged for handouts from the locals, David scrambles to protect him while contemplating how much longer to indulge his delusions of grandeur.

nebraska2If there’s no one skeleton key that unlocks a child’s understanding of his or her parent, “Nebraska” suggests that there’s at least a sort of road map that leads towards key moments and formative experiences in Mom and Dad’s lives. Unsurprisingly, Payne handles the Grants’ dyspeptic interactions with typical sensitivity, indulging the humor of small-town sensibilities without judgment or condescension.

For example, beyond its immediate comedic dividends, there’s something deeply recognizable about the notion of a family reunion two decades in the making that culminates in a dinner where no one has anything to say. Meanwhile, the inevitable emergence of longstanding grievances and lurking resentments both supplies the film with drama and bolsters its real-world authenticity.

As Woody, Dern delivers an utterly convincing performance that’s equal parts stubbornness and senility, conveying a distant sense of awareness that he’s undertaking a fool’s errand, but also a desperate, possibly drunken hope that inspires his perseverance. Meanwhile, June Squibb plays his long-suffering wife, Kate, with a honey badger’s disregard for propriety, a spitfire who’s unafraid to tell it like it is whether she’s condemning Woody’s pointless quest or scolding his greedy relatives.

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David, on the other hand, understands both Woody and Kate, and Forte strikes an effortless balance between their opposing viewpoints feels like a natural byproduct of their parental influence. Despite being a performer whose comedic roles often tap into a sort of frenzied desperation, Forte is delicate and understated under Payne’s direction, slowly appeasing the character’s muffled unhappiness as he begins to find common ground with his estranged father.

Employing the same road-trip structure of his earlier films “About Schmidt” and “Sideways,” Payne utilizes the rolling vistas of the Midwest as a canvas for his father and son’s tumultuous interactions. But the filmmaker’s contemplative approach never turns mournful or mawkish, and he consistently downplays the story’s larger symbolic implications by keeping his focus on the behavior of the characters.

In so doing, Payne crafts a film that skirts the extremes of a parochial existence – neither the Bedford Falls of “It’s a Wonderful Life” nor the North Texas wasteland of “The Last Picture Show” – in favor of an appropriately nuanced portrait of small-town life. Ultimately an intimate tale whose larger ramifications lurk just beyond the horizon of Woody’s immediate priorities, “Nebraska” sets its goalposts at poignancy rather than profundity, and achieves emotional transcendence precisely because its victories prove just enough for one man.