Merie W. Wallace
ROUGH NIGHT?: Bruce Dern gives a memorable performance as Woody Grant, a crotchety alcoholic convinced he’s won a million dollars.
City Paper grade: B
After trekking to California’s wine country for Sideways and Hawaii for The Descendants, Alexander Payne returns to his home turf for his latest, the father-son road trip Nebraska. And like any homecoming, it’s a combination of nostalgia and resentment.
The Omaha native renders the film’s Midwestern landscapes in a stark black and white reminiscent of Depression-era photographs, capturing a bleak emptiness in both harsh and poetic imagery. Against this backdrop, Payne sets the withered features of Bruce Dern as Woody Grant, an aged alcoholic who is determined to walk from Montana to Lincoln, Neb., to claim a million dollars supposedly won in a mail-order scam. His aimless son David (Will Forte) eventually agrees to shepherd him on his fool’s errand, hoping they’ll form that elusive bond. The pair detours from their quest for a reunion with Woody’s extended family in his hometown, where secrets from his past begin to come to light.
Dern, a veteran character actor given to playing eccentrics and sleazeballs, seizes his first opportunity in recent memory to sink his teeth into a sizable role, sporting a perpetual expression of pained disgust. Forte, known mostly for his stint on Saturday Night Live, is an intriguing choice for the lead, with his sad eyes and pinched look giving him a put-upon, long-suffering quality.
The film’s uneasy divide between heartfelt drama and broad comedy so perfectly fits with Payne’s oeuvre that it’s surprising to learn that he didn’t write the screenplay. But that balance is particularly precarious here as Payne depicts small-minded, small-town folks with both condescension and intimate understanding. Woody’s grasping clan and forgotten hopes are meant to form a bridge between a lost past and his embittered old age, but Payne never quite manages to make that connection palpable.
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