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Review: Dern gives a sly performance in Payne's 'Nebraska'

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Bruce Dern last received an Oscar nomination for the film Coming Home more than 30 years ago.

He will likely find himself on short least for the golden boy once again based on his performance in Nebraska, Alexander Payne’s latest cinematic effort.

Only those 45 or older or movie fans who immerse themselves in every decade will remember Dern, a character actor of high regard dating from the 60s through the 1980s.

People often remember the face and voice, but never can place a name with them. That will change with Nebraska and Dern’s portrayal of a scraggily, grumpy retired husband and father who is more complex than anyone would ever assume.

That’s his Woody Grant, a retiree living in Billings, Mont. who really believes he’s won a magazine clearinghouse’s sweepstakes contest. All he wants to do is get to Lincoln, Neb. to collect his $1 million prize much to the consternation of his wife Katie (Jane Squibb) and sons David (Will Forte) and Ross (Bob Odenkirk). His willingness to walk to Lincoln gives his family the sense that Woody may be losing his faculties and as a concession to him David agrees to drive him to claim the prize.

Of course this isn’t a road trip that will go smoothly and a mishap forces David and Woody to stop in his small hometown (pop. less than 2,000) to rest and visit his brood of brothers.

It’s during that visit that Payne introduces the audience to a man who once had dreams, but somehow, some way got lost in his journey to fulfill them.

Payne paints a picture of an imperfect man who may have settled in life. Things really get interesting when he reveals to a former business partner, Ed (Stacy Keach) that he’s coming into some money. All of a sudden the vultures, including Ed, begin to circle.

Family members want their piece as many begin to remember money that they “loaned” Woody way back when. Ed fights dirty and begins to air Woody’s dirty laundry to David.

Through it all, Woody maintains some modicum of dignity and that’s because of Dern’s portrayal and Payne’s writing. Woody is the guy who bought into the American Dream way back when and suddenly wakes up to find it’s not exactly what he thought it would be. His desires aren’t great (an air compressor and new truck to be exact), but no one seems to understand that, except perhaps one person close to him.

Payne creates a memorable character to convey his interpretation of the American Dream and Dern runs with it. His performance proves sly because we never know exactly whether Woody has problems or whether he's playing everyone around him. It's a joy to watch him work. But he also has a supporting cast, especially Squibb, who will likely get nominated for a best supporting Oscar, to aid his journey as Woody.

Nebraska is American angst encapsulated and Payne and his case explore it masterfully.

Movie: Nebraska
Director: Alexander Payne
Cast: Bruce Dern, Stacy Keach, Jane Squibb
Studio: Paramount Vantage
Rated: R for some language
Running time: 115 minutes
George’s rating: 4-of-5 stars
Check for theaters and showtimes at Atlas Cinemas, Cleveland Cinemas, Fandango.com and MovieTickets.com

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