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Henry David Thoreau once said that “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation.” I have always liked that quote especially when it’s thematically applied to films. Alexander Payne’s NEBRASKA is one of those films and if you enjoy small, quirky films that are simply about the foibles of the human condition then this trip is worth your time.
The cantankerous Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) is getting on in his years and his mind is not what it used to be. He has received a letter from a sweepstakes alerting him that he has (supposedly) won one million dollars. But as anyone living in reality knows, this is not the case; they just want you to buy magazines.
But that doesn’t stop Woody from wanting to collect his prize from their home office in Nebraska, even if he has to walk there all the way from his home in Montana. Rightfully so, his wife Kate (June Squibb) and his elder son Ross (Bob Odenkirk) refuse to acknowledge this fantasy. But his younger son David (Will Forte) decides to indulge it because he feels that his father has earned the right to believe in something before he dies or fades away into a foggy haze.
David drives Woody to Nebraska but along the way they experience some sidetracks as well as a longer than expected pit stop at Woody’s childhood home in Hawthorne. Word gets out that Woody is now a millionaire, which only further complicates Woody’s delusion and strains the father-son relationship.
Filmed in black & white with a slow hand, NEBRASKA takes its time as we are introduced to Woody’s friends and family members. It is a quiet film and unless you are in the mood for a film like this, it can be a challenge. I however rather enjoyed it especially because Payne can be rather unsentimental at times, which is refreshing. There’s no sappy music or dialogue to erroneously pull at your heartstrings. The people are who they are. You love them for that or you don’t.
I can absolutely see why Dern and Squibb received nominations, as they are terrific, but kudos should also go out to Forte and Odenkirk who play very understated characters that really show their range as actors. Unfortunately, some of the other supporting roles leave a little to be desired and feel a tad inauthentic, but never enough to ruin the experience.
All in all NEBRASKA is a fine little film but unless you are an Oscar completionist, you may want to wait to take this journey from the comfort of your own home.