Comedy Drama

Million Dollar Film Review: Nebraska

November 22, 2013Ben MK

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You can't go home again

We've all received them in the mail at some point: those sweepstakes notices announcing that you've won a million dollars. But have you ever wondered if anyone actually believes them, or what would happen if someone tried to claim their prize winnings? That's part of the premise of Nebraska, the quirky new film from The Descendants director and native son Alexander Payne, which uses that very notion to tell the story of what happens when a son who never truly knew his father finds out more than he could ever imagine.

Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) is a man of few words who likes nothing better than a couple of beers and avoiding excitement. That is, until he receives a notice in the mail, informing him that he's won a million-dollar sweepstakes prize. Since then, he's been wandering the streets on his own, trying to find his way to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim his prize winnings. The problem: Woody lives in Billings, Montana -- four states away. The other problem: he hasn't really won anything. But he refuses to let anything come between him and his million dollars, so much so that one day his son, David (Will Forte), agrees to drive him to Lincoln to claim the money, despite the objections of his brother, Ross (Bob Odenkirk), and mother, Kate (June Squibb). Along the way, their road trip takes them to Woody's home town of Hawthorne, where they encounter old family, old friends and old ghosts from Woody's past. And when word gets out that he's a soon-to-be millionaire, that's when everyone and everything, including family secrets long since forgotten, come out of the woodworks.

Nebraska is presented in black and white -- somewhat of a rarity in film these days. The color palette (or lack thereof) gives the film a timeless look and signifies that this is the kind of movie that rarely gets made anymore -- the kind that's purely focused on the dialog and its characters, proceeding at its own pace and with minimal interference from a soundtrack or score. It may be something of a road trip movie, but it certainly has the feel of a low-key stage adaptation.

With the emphasis placed squarely on its cast, the film had better brings its best to the table in the acting department, and it does. Dern is on point as Woody, the sarcastic patriarch whose quiet and sometimes surly exterior belies the charitable heart of a man who only wants the best for his family. Although best known as a comedian and former cast member of Saturday Night Live, Forte plays it perfectly as the straight man to Dern's character. Likewise, Bob Odenkirk (most recently known for his character of Saul Goodman on AMC's Breaking Bad) turns in a modest performance as David's brother, who is incredulous of the whole situation but grows to accept it for what it is. But it's really June Squibb who steals the show with the best lines of the film, as the outspoken and feisty family matriarch. She manages to give a low-key yet outrageously funny performance and stands out as the most memorable character in the film.

The Bottom Line

Fans of Alexander Payne's work on the Oscar-winning film The Descendants may be taken aback by the leisurely pacing and low-key nature of Nebraska. Although both films are about reconnecting with family, the latter keeps a much lower profile than typical Hollywood fare. At its heart, it's not just about finding out where we belong and finding out how we got there, but discovering that family is more than just blood; it's the bonds we forge along the way. [★★★½]

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