If there is one enduring image from the slice of Americana that is Nebraska, it is of befuddled, weathered Bruce Dern, sitting blankly with his fuzzy white hair back-lit like a halo. You are not sure if he is mentally all there. Sometimes his mouth kind of gapes open, or he slumps over in his chair. Is he checked out? Or maybe dead? The one thing that perks up this old guy, over and over, is the mention that he might be a millionaire.
Woody (Dern) is found shuffling down a busy thoroughfare in Billings, walking slowly but purposefully. Where ya going, Woody? Well, he won a million dollars, so he is going to Lincoln, Nebraska, one way or another, to claim his prize. After repeated calls from the police, neighbors, and strangers who keep finding wandering Woody (like a lost dog escaping from the backyard), his son David (Will Forte) finally decides to drive his dad to Lincoln, if only to prove to his dad that the winning letter was just a random marketing scam.
Nebraska is a gentle, sweet, and often sad comedy about a father and son circling each other around a fantasy, and not just the million dollars. David doesn’t know his father well, and his dad even admits he had no interest in having kids… it just happened. Through this road trip, which also finds the duo in Woody’s old hometown (where his future winnings make his a minor celebrity), David slowly learns some things about his father’s past that changes the way he sees him.
Like all Alexander Payne films (from Election to Sideways to The Descendants), the cast is uniformly excellent, including a vast array of supporting actors who sure as heck seem like they were plucked off a street in small-town Nebraska. Dern will most likely get a deserved Oscar nomination, but the scene stealing standout is June Squibb as Woody’s long-suffering wife. “I never even knew the son-of-a-bitch even wanted to be a millionaire! Should have thought of that years ago and worked for it!” she exclaims, before slamming the screen door.
Ultimately, Nebraska leaves you like an old postcard that made you smile, even though it made you kind of sad… a final frame that is sweet while it breaks your heart.