Though he had done some great work before, (thinking of 'Election' specifically), starting with 'Sideways', Alexander Payne has practically been annointed an infallible filmmaker. 'The Descendants' didn't hurt the argument.
His most recent work is a highly-regarded, simple road movie called 'Nebraska.'
Woody (Bruce Dern) is an old drunk who receives a letter in the mail that tells him he has won a million dollars. His son David (Will Forte) immediately recognizes it as a scam to sell magazines, but since his father has tried walking from his home in Montana to the source of the letter in Nebraska to collect his winnings, he decides to indulge the old man's fantasy. He also seeks to connect with the man who was never really there for him growing up. His mother Kate (June Squibb) and his brother Ross (Bob Odenkirk) both disapprove, but David drives his father anyway. Besides, David doesn't have a lot going on in his life anyway.
An incident or two later, the duo are sidetracked and eventually roped into a family reunion in Hawthorne, where Woody grew up. Most of the family is there along with some old friends and acquaintances that he left behind years ago. When word gets out about Woody's impending payday, the town is abuzz and people come out of the woodwork to congratulate him and to collect some perceived debts.
Is Woody actually going to get a million dollars? Will the Woody and David even make it to Nebraska? Will he be able to connect with the family he was in no condition to be there for during his 'lost years'?
Though some have complained that there isn't much happening in the film, that didn't really cross my mind while viewing this. There is plenty of conflict, be it a silent long-standing resentment, reality versus optimism or the greed of others. A few obvious villains emerge in both the form of ghosts from the past and some buffoons who double as comic relief.
Humor is employed subtly. Nothing will make you burst out laughing, but the tone is consistently light enough to keep things watchable. A lot of the chuckles come from Kate, who gets quite a bit of mileage out of the 'crude old lady' schtick. Woody's naivete and curse of taking everything and everyone at face value is both an endearing quality and cause for quite a bit of difficulty in the trip.
The black and white cinematography was a nice visual touch. It gives the film a distinct look that sets it apart from most other films. The monochromatic approach could also be representative of Woody's worldview (Get it? Everything is black or white).
While it quickly becomes apparent that the destination itself is of little consequence, that doesn't mean we aren't treated to a satisfying conclusion. A few things happen that you would expect/hope for, but there are a few curveballs that mildly subvert your expectations. This is an Alexander Payne film, after all.
Of course Dern gets the MVP award for this movie. He convincingly plays a stubbornly befuddled old man who may not have been a great father. Forte should get some respect, as well, for playing against type and ably being the straight man in the situation. Against his better judgment, he indulges his father's fantasy and acquiesces to be able to spend time with him.
Special features include: only a few previews.
Despite the gigantic expectations 'Nebraska' lives up to the hype.
It isn’t nearly as slow-paced as some people accused it of being and it is filled with interesting characters.
Add an extra half star to this review.
Rated R 114 minutes 2014