Nebraska, director Alexander Payne's ode to mortality, proves that it is indeed the journey, not the destination that matters.
"Hey partner, Where you heading?" a policemen asks older-than-dirt Woody Grant, played to the hilt by the long-absent and fondly rediscovered Bruce Dern. Woody doesn't answer the policeman. He just points to the highway.
Soon enough, we learn that Woody is pointing toward Nebraska, where he intends to cash in on an all-too-familiar mailer/scam that promises the recipient $1 million if he commits to some magazine subscriptions. We all know, of course, that the flier's fine-print says otherwise, but Woody isn't a fine print kind of guy.
This cotton candy-haired old coot grunts more than talks, and won't be taking home Father of the Year honors anytime soon. Yet, he's an everyman, and buried deep inside are too many memories, many of them painful.
"Does he have Alzheimer's?" asks a woman.
"No, he just believes what people tell him," whispers his son, David.
"Oh, that's too bad," the woman responds.
Woody insists that he's the rightful claimant of $1 million, and he needs to make his way from Billings, Mont., to Lincoln, Neb., to claim his prize. But Woody has a big problem: He can't drive anymore. So he leans on David, played lovingly in a measured delivery by Will Forte. You won't confuse Forte's performance here with the kinetic energy he exuded through eight seasons of Saturday Night Live. Payne's inspired casting landed Forte the role over other notable actors, including Bryan Cranston, Paul Rudd and Casey Affleck.
"I just believe Will as a guy I would know around Omaha," said Payne, who still calls Nebraska home. "He has just a very, very believable quality."
Payne's other inspired move was to film Nebraska in black and white, and it succeeds on so many levels. It's not the sharp-edged black and white that we've seen in Much Ado About Nothing or Frances Ha. Instead, this black and white is cloudy--even ghostly--drawing its audience closer to Woody's near-dementia.
Dern and Forte are fabulous--they're probably both Oscar-bound. But the entire cast is also pretty swell, not the least of which is June Squibb as Kate, Woody's sharp-tongued wife. She steals every scene that she waddles into. And then there's Bob Odenkirk as Ross, David's bitter brother. There's plenty of small-town satire with the rest of the cast, but Payne clearly knows these locales and these local knuckleheads all too well, so things are never too far from reality. In fact, with such a gorgeous script by Seattle-native Bob Nelson, all of the characters come across as flawed and frayed but ultimately decent folk.
Payne knows road movies--his Sideways in 2004 was a modern classic. And in Nebraska, Payne reminds us that he is that rarest of breeds in Hollywood: a sincere, humanist filmmaker. His latest journey back to his Nebraska homeland is one of the year's best.