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Movie review: 'Nebraska'

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Nebraska

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As a critic, the plot is one of the most essential parts to examining a movie. If the plot doesn’t work, the movie doesn’t work. But every so often, the plot isn’t really that important. I’m not talking about an action blockbuster that one merely watches for a couple hours of entertainment; I’m talking about a film that serves more as a character study, the interactions and inner struggles of the people on screen taking precedence over a skeletal storyline whose only purpose is to set the stage for these interactions. It doesn’t always work, but in Alexander Payne’s drama “Nebraska”, the characters are interesting, so quirky, and so relatable, that the story takes a backseat to the action.

David Grant (Will Forte), is a young man living in Billings, Montana. He has a job selling home theaters, and a complicated relationship with his sometimes girlfriend. His dad, Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), is getting on in age, and is similarly aimless. He finds his purpose in a flyer advertising a $1,000,000 sweepstakes prize, and takes it upon himself to walk to Lincoln, Nebraska, where the contest is headquartered, much to the frustration of his two sons and wife Kate (June Squibb). After attempting to make the journey several times, David decides to drive his dad to Lincoln himself, knowing full well the flyer is bogus but wanting Woody to get it out of his system, as well as spend some time with him.

Their trip turns into a reunion with family—and the past—when, despite Woody’s objections, he and David stop over in Hawthorne, Nebraska, where Woody grew up. Kate and David’s brother Ross (Bob Odenkirk) join them along with Woody’s many brothers and David’s obnoxious cousins Bart and Cole. But when they encounter some of Woody’s old friends, including Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach), Woody’s story of becoming a millionaire gets blown out of proportion, and tension quickly arises.

This isn’t a “road trip” movie, even though it may sound like it. David and Woody’s journey to Lincoln to collect the prize money really isn’t the main focus of the story. Rather, than scenario is used to explore the relationships between all these characters: father and son, husband and wife, brothers and friends and distant relatives.

And in the end, those relationships are more interesting than any generic road trip movie could be. The actors are fantastic and really embody these people, all of whom have their own unique personality. While they are all quite amusing—this film is surprising funny—the actors never turn in an over-exaggerated performance, keeping each and every person in this movie feeling as real as if they were sitting right next to you. Dern, who has always been a fun actor to watch, gives what is probably his best performance in this film. Woody may be an alcoholic, and he may seem confused or gruff, but there is a reason behind his every action. Forte is also great as the relatable everyman, but the real scene stealer is June Squibb. Every line that comes out of her mouth is a zinger, but she has a sweet side that subtly shows through every once in a while. The acting is masterful, but a lot of the credit also belongs to screenwriter Bob Nelson for creating such rich characters and dialogue.

The cinematography is gorgeous as well. It was shot in black-and-white against Paramount’s wishes, as Payne wanted to create an “iconic” look as well as emphasize the dramatic landscapes seen throughout the film. The look does suit the film very well, to the point where it’s hard to imagine it in color—even though a color version was supposedly also made to satisfy the studio, hopefully it will never be released.

“Nebraska” is one of the nine films up for Best Picture at this year’s Academy Awards, and even though I wouldn’t count it among the very best movies of 2013, it’s nice to see this kind of film receive the honor, as well as actors Dern and Squibb, who are also nominated and deservedly so. It’s a film that you go in to not really knowing what to expect, but leaving completely satisfied, especially with the payoff at the end of the movie. Yes, story is important in a movie, but here it doesn’t really matter, because it feels like watching real life.

Runtime: 115 minutes. Rated R for some language.

Check out showtimes for this movie and more at the following St. Louis-area theaters:

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