By Steve Persall
Times Movie Critic
Woody Grant wants his money, one thing he figures he's owed after everything taken away over the years. All his life Woody did what everyone wanted, and look where that got him. A million dollars could set things right, or at least replace that air compressor a so-called friend borrowed and never returned 40 years ago.
The problem is that there's no fortune awaiting Woody in Nebraska, which is both a state and a state of mind in Alexander Payne's melancholy comedy. Woody thinks he has won a publisher's clearinghouse sweepstakes, unlike thousands who tossed the same come-on mailing into the trash.
Maybe it's the onset of dementia or a last-ditch pipe dream, but Woody wants his money. More to the point, Woody needs the respect that money could bring.
At age 77, it's fairly safe to declare Woody as the role of Bruce Dern's lifetime. After more than a half-century of mostly playing unhinged characters, it's astonishing to witness this performance, so artistically understated, expressing so much with so little. Dern makes Woody's thoughts clear with no more words than necessary — fewer if possible — and glints of meaning in otherwise vacant eyes.
Like the rest of the movie, Dern's performance feels transported from the 1970s, when least likely characters inspired memorable movies, with open-ended, meaningful payoffs. Nebraska makes this aesthetic connection obvious with small-town America and Americans eulogized by Phedon Papamichael's monochrome cinematography, as did Robert Surtees in The Last Picture Show. Payne grew up in the Cornhusker State, tempering the condescension for characters and cultures he can occasionally display.
Woody's quest to claim his money — and reclaim his life — is reluctantly aided by his son, David (Will Forte), whose life is a different sort of stagnant, with a dead-end job selling audio equipment, and a girlfriend walking out. Woody's wife, Kate (scene stealer June Squibb), thinks they're both crazy. Her crude bluntness lends a more overt sense of humor to the movie; she's the crazy codger that screenwriter Bob Nelson refuses to let Woody become.
Eventually Woody and David's road trip leads to the old man's Nebraska hometown, where life took its first turns for the worse. Much of that can be blamed on Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach), a former business partner who figures he's owed a piece of that sweepstakes money, along with Woody's dumber-than-dirt nephews (Tim Driscoll, Devin Ratray). Not much happens to Woody in Payne's movie, compared to modern penchants for rushed narratives and easily defined characters.
Yet patience pays off, with a suitably minor triumph for such an unassuming man. And a major acting triumph for Dern, hands down this year's sentimental favorite for awards season.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall on Twitter.