Nebraska is one of Alexander Payne’s most personal, nuanced works, glimpsing into a state that he has a clear affection for and characters that deeply affect him. Bruce Dern plays Woody Grant, an optimistic alcoholic that receives a Mega Million Sweepstakes letter saying he won a million dollars. His son, David (Will Forte), tries tirelessly to convince him that it’s fake, yet Woody won’t have it, attempting to walk to Nebraska if he has to. David, seeing the blind resilience of his father, joins him on his journey from Montana back to his hometown. That’s where the film prospers. Nelson’s script guides these characters down comedic paths that feel shockingly grounded in reality despite its far-fetched character premise. The supporting cast, including June Squibb and Bob Odenkirk, are outstanding, but Forte and Dern are the standouts, providing tender portrayals of varying degrees of humanity. Nebraska wears its heart on its sleeve, waiting for someone to tear it to shreds.
The biggest complaint I’ve seen surrounding the film relates to its pessimistic, spiteful view of humanity, particularly within the close-knit doubters of Woody’s character. I don’t buy it. Woody is front-and-center for a reason; despite all of his faults as a human being, whether that relate to his inability to properly raise a family, his raging alcoholism, or his blindness to the world around him, he is a caring individual. The script is layered with details about Woody’s past, making him a fascinating enigma; the fact that he loved another woman yet says that the concept of love was never “brought up” during his current marriage stands as one of the most surprising traits a character has had all year. And Dern brings heart to these moments. Near the end of the film, as David interacts with the sweepstakes operator, he mentions that his father believes everything people tell him. “That’s too bad,” she says. Therein lies the optimism of Woody’s character, remaining a triumphant, strangely likable character.
Grade: ★★★★½ (out of 5)