By: Greg Maier
Director Alexander Payne (The Descendants, 2011) is back with perhaps the best film of his career and certainly the best film so far this year. Nebraska is the story of confused and aging alcoholic Woody Grant played by Bruce Dern (Coming Home, 1978) who believes he has won a million dollars in a marketing sweepstakes scam and tries to walk from his home in Montana to Lincoln Nebraska in order to claim his would be fortune. Unable to convince his father that the prize isn’t actually real, Woody’s son David played by Will Forte (Saturday Night Live) agrees to drive Woody to Lincoln in hopes to at least spend a few days of quality time with his father who was never a perfect dad growing up.
The role won Dern a best actor award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival as his character is the epitome of a naive generation of aging parents who have reached the point in life where their diminishing memory requires guidance from their children to keep them from being taken advantage of. More than anything, Nebraska is about a father/son relationship that, better late then never, is finally reaching a point of mutual respect and love. Along the way, Woody and David are forced to revisit Woody’s hometown where word gets out that he is a millionaire causing the entire town, including their hilarious simpleton relatives, to want to get their hands on some of Woody’s prize money.
Despite his mother’s protests, played with brilliant comedic timing by June Squibb (About Schmidt, 2002), David indulges his father’s delusional actions if only to show the man a good time and give him something to live for as he nears a point of complete confusion of his surroundings. Nebraska is undoubtedly a comedy, but it is this selflessness by David for his father that makes the picture such a thing of beauty which conventional comedies seldom reach. The story is such a simple one and is quite slow moving, but the characters are so genuine that it seems impossible not to fall in love with this movie.
In an era where the success of films is heavily dependent on big name actors and digital special effects, Nebraska is truly a black sheep among its peers yet for all the right reasons. Alexander Payne has proven that it is characters and not necessarily story that are most important in films. After all, he made a picture about a man and his son taking a trip through the rural Midwest, shot it in black and white and avoided the boring conventions of usual storytelling and he ended up with a film that I would have no shame in calling a modern masterpiece of cinema.