1. Arts & Entertainment

Review: Bruce Dern is a true winner in Alexander Payne's 'Nebraska'

David Grant (Will Forte) and his estranged father, Woody (Bruce Dern), look for an elusive pot of gold.
Published Dec. 9, 2013

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 or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall on Twitter.


  1. University of South Florida forensic anthropologist Erin Kimmerle pieces together a skull that might have been Amelia Earhart's. SANDRA C. ROA  |  University of South Florida
    DNA from a skull found in 1940 could prove whether the famous aviator has been found.
  2. A rendering of one retail corner at Sparkman Wharf, which is building up its dining offerings in Tampa. Courtesy of Strategic Property Partners
    The new arrival will pair small plates with more than 150 bottles of wine.
  3. Jeremy Piven participates in the "Wisdom of the Crowd" panel during the CBS Television Critics Association Summer Press Tour at CBS Studio Center in Beverly Hills, Calif., in 2017. CHRIS PIZZELLO  |  Invision/AP
    The Emmy-winning ‘Entourage’ star will host a bash at the poolside club WTR.
  4. The new show called the Bourne Stuntacular will debut at Universal Studios Florida in the spring of 2020, the theme park has announced. AP (2015)
    The new show called the Bourne Stuntacular will debut at the Orlando theme park.
  5. Taco Bell Tuesday announced it had recalled 2.3 million pounds of its seasoned beef filling.
    The fast food chain announced Tuesday it voluntarily recalled 2.3 million pounds of beef after customers reported fining metal shavings in their food.
  6. Anjelah Johnson attends the launch event for Kevin Hart's new streaming video network, Laugh Out Loud, in 2017 in Beverly Hills, Calif. DANNY MOLOSHOK  |  Invision/AP
    A sold-out Tampa show from comedian Anjelah Johnson, the Sacred Heart Fall Festival in Pinellas Park and a Tampa performance by singer Bea Miller.
  7. In the SoHo area of Tampa, the new Poke Fish's menu mirrors what's featured at the original location. Courtesy of Poke Fish
    Wesley Chapel newcomer Teriyaki Madness also keeps the personalized bowls coming at the Shops at Wiregrass.
  8. Seared pork chops with rosemary butter MICHELLE STARK  |  Tampa Bay Times
    And a recipe for seared pork chops that puts them to good use.
  9. Bratwurst will be the star of Brat Blast, replacing Ribfest as the Northeast Exchange Club of St. Petersburg's big charity fundraiser of the year. Tampa Bay Times (2014)
    Brat Blast will be the Northeast Exchange Club’s big charity fundraising party this year after the high cost of bands and security for Ribfest cut into its charitable work.
  10. Gladys Knight performs at sundown at the 36th Clearwater Jazz Holiday on Oct. 15, 2015, in Coachman Park. JIM DAMASKE  |  TAMPA BAY TIMES
    The annual event, which returns this weekend, has come a long way. Where will it go from here?