Hollywood has never known what to do with Bruce Dern. Even back in his ’70s heyday, the predictably unpredictable actor always seemed to get pigeonholed as a supporting player — the mischievous and slightly dangerous foil in films like Coming Home and The Great Gatsby. Dern is 77 now, and by some small miracle of the casting gods it looks as though getting older was just the thing he needed to finally make him a movie star.
In Nebraska, Alexander Payne’s emotionally rich black-and-white road movie about the eternal friction between fathers and sons, Dern’s been handed the role of a lifetime. He knows exactly what to do with it. With a messy head of wispy white cotton-candy hair and the sour demeanor of a man who’s been screwed over since the beginning of time, Dern’s Woody Grant is a cranky old grouch who’s convinced that he’s won a million dollars. The truth is, he’s merely one of many recipients of a generic you-could-already-be-a-winner letter designed to hawk magazine subscriptions. With nothing else to live for and a nagging battle-ax of a wife (June Squibb) at home, he sets out on an 850-mile trek from Billings, Mont., to the sweepstakes office in Lincoln, Neb., first by foot and then by car with the help of his son (a surprisingly subtle Will Forte, from SNL).
Like Payne’s earlier films About Schmidt (2002) and Sideways (2004), Nebraska is a wandering film. It’s not so much about the destination as it is about the unexpected detours along the way. Forte’s put-upon stereo salesman, David, knows that his father is deluded and possibly suffering from dementia. But he agrees to accompany him to Lincoln in order to get closer to a man he’s never quite been able to connect with. Deep down, Woody probably suspects that he’s not a newly minted millionaire, but he needs something, anything, to give his wasted life meaning. As they drive through a monochromatic heartland straight out of The Last Picture Show, making pit stops to quench the alcoholic Woody’s thirst and visit relatives eager to get their paws on his supposed windfall, the two men grow closer. Sort of. Payne’s far too acerbic a storyteller to offer anything as pat as a newfound understanding or warmth between these characters. The best they can hope for is some sort of icy détente. But Bob Nelson’s script is smart to steer clear of sap and easy sentiment.
Nebraska isn’t a perfect movie. It’s often hard to tell whether Payne, an Omaha native, is paying heartfelt tribute to his vast stable of Cornhusker characters or slyly mocking them as simpleminded yokels. And the leisurely paced film takes its sweet time building up a head of steam before the beautifully poignant final act. But Dern is remarkable from beginning to end. Like the pickled and cantankerous geezer Woody, he has finally stumbled onto a life-changing ticket of his own. B+