Rating: This is a gripping story about the consequences of growing old. Bruce Dern is remarkable, but June Squibb should win an Oscar for her role as his put-upon wife, a demonic angel.
Nebraska is a small, black and white film that is beguiling beyond meaningful description. Far exceeding Director Alexander Payne’s last contribution to the cinema, The Descendants (2011), it is at its heart a sublime story about moments that affect every American family.
Bruce Dern plays Woody King, an alcoholic slowly succumbing to the onset of dementia. Living with an emotionally exhausted wife in Billings, he is dead set on walking to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim an imagined $1 million lottery prize. Dressed constantly in a plaid shirt, his head covered by his frizzy, unkempt white hair, he has largely lost any meaningful connection to life.
While Mr. Dern is fabulous, the movie belongs to June Squibb, playing his vulgar, very funny wife who can no longer tolerate Woody’s antics. In one moment she is as mean as a snake, hoping that her husband is committed to a nursing home. The next moment she is driving her son to the edge of insanity by reliving her sexual life before she married Woody.
Woody repeatedly forces his son David, played magnificently by Will Forte, to leave his job at a music center to pull him off a highway. In desperation, David decides that the only way to help his father is to drive him to Lincoln and see the absurdity that awaits him.
What follows is a road trip as father and son spend time with each other for the first time in many years. Woody is distant and laconic, while David tries to crack through his thick exterior.
There are many incredibly amusing moments, not the least of which is when Woody runs to the nearest bar to down a beer while David gases up his car. Denying he is an alcoholic, David asks him how he can justify constantly consuming beer. Woody quickly looks at him and dismissively responds, “Beer isn’t drinking.”;
Our boys eventually stop in Woody’s hometown in Nebraska, where they are joined by Ms. Squibb and a houseful of distant relatives. Constant raucous interplay follows as his goofy relatives try to tap Woody’s supposed wealth.
Joining the group is Woody’s other son, played wonderfully by Bob Odenkirk. While the boys jointly feel that their father is as mad as the proverbial Hatter, they rally to his side to keep him from being exploited.
Stacy Keach also makes a strong appearance, here playing an old business partner of Woody’s who senses a financial windfall. Mr. Keach and others really don’t care about Woody personally, but only his money. When they realize Woody’s tragic mistake, they try to publicly humiliate him, resulting in his sons rallying to his side in a moment that is unforgettable.
This is a moving tale about an American family trying to come to grips with the travails involved in the aging process. The central theme of Mr. Payne’s film centers on the consequences of a simple, aging American believing what he is told.
If that is a sign of dementia, God help us all.