There comes a time in almost every person's life that he will have to start taking care of a parent the way the parent once took care of him. "Nebraska" is a film about that time, when mild-mannered, stereo salesman Dave (Will Forte) must take care of his father, Woody (Bruce Dern) who is as stubborn as any child, but has a mind that has become as wrinkled as his face.
For their children, parents go to great lengths to create a fantasy – be it Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy. The generational tables turned, Dave will go to great lengths himself to indulge his father's fantasy – driving hundreds of miles from Montana to Nebraska for what Woody thinks is a grand million dollar sweepstakes prize he has won. It's a scam – one of those marketing campaigns that con you into buying magazine subscriptions – and everybody but Woody knows it. But as the old adage goes, it's all about the journey.
Directed by Alexander Payne ("The Descendents," "Sideways") and with a script that took 56-year-old newcomer Bob Nelson 10 years to get on screen, "Nebraska" is both charming and humble. It is shot in black and white CinemaScope that basks in the nostalgia of its setting, the Great American West that has run into some hard times.
But rather than put its salt-of-the-earth subjects on a pedestal, "Nebraska" treats them with a gentle deadpan humor. The familial exchanges have the intimacy of a sketch comedy act (Nelson wrote for the variety show "Almost Live" and Forte got his big break on "Saturday Night Live"), but the punchlines never stray too far from what could be heard in any home.
"Nebraska" is a study on aging: the way the elderly move, the way they speak – with mischievous candor their age allows them, or barely speaking at all – the way they let things go, and the way they insist on holding on. Woody's dementia is due in some part to many years of heavy drinking that have alienated him from Dave and his older son Ross (Bob Odenkirk), and tested the patience of their wise-cracking mother Kate (June Squibb). Even now he doesn't seem that interested in being a father, rarely uttering more than a few you words at a time. Yet Dave feels he owes Woody this one last adventure at the twilight of his life. "The guy just needs something to live for," Dave tells a skeptical Kate when he agrees to drive Woody down to Lincoln.
But Dave is in a rut of his own, stuck in a dead-end job and recently dumped by his girlfriend (Missy Doty) for being a dead-end boyfriend. When Dave's hopes to connect with his father one-on-one fall short, he turns it into a family reunion in Woody's hometown. Dave meets an assortment of relatives that Woody never bothered to keep in touch with, as well as a community that somehow still remembers Woody, particularly once it hears he may be coming into some money.
The many jokes "Nebraska" makes at the cost of if its characters' "ahh gee" provincialism would come off as cruel, had it not been for the universality of their story. Hawthorne, Neb., where much of the film occurs, is a very specific time and place, where the nicest restaurant in town has a karaoke machine, where the local newspaper is run by a kind widow, and where no one forgets old debts. But what goes on there happens everywhere – families fighting over money, fathers disappointing their sons, wives standing up for the husbands who once betrayed them.
Dave eventually comes to terms with all the failings of his father, but he also discovers the biggest flaw of all. "He couldn't say no to anyone," his mother tells Dave, and for once Woody's not letting anyone say no to him. Once the two make it to Lincoln, it doesn't really matter if there's any sweepstakes money waiting for them – that realization is the biggest prize of all.