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After briefly departing from the mainland with The Descendants, Alexander Payne returns to middle-America for Nebraska. Structurally, Payne has covered the same ground before in About Schmidt, starring Jack Nicholson. Both Nebraska and Schmidt are road movies about disappointment and coming to terms with growing old. Where they differ is in their approach to this formula. Where Schmidt utilized early-Wes-Anderson-style quirk, Nebraska deploys a barrage of nostalgia to pull the viewer in, and it works wonders.
Nebraska begins with the aging Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) walking along the highway to Lincoln, Nebraska so that he can redeem his “prize” of one million dollars that he received in the mail. His son, David (Will Forte), immediately realizes that it’s a scam, but agrees to drive Woody to Lincoln, thinking that it will give his father a sense of purpose. An accident causes Woody and David to be delayed and they resort to staying at Woody’s brother’s house in Hawthorne, his hometown. Woody’s “secret” gets out and old relationships are brought back to the surface.
The performances are terrific across the board. Bruce Dern excels as the wily Woody, and it’s easy to draw the parallels between the actor and the character; Dern’s career stalled after the 70s, just as Woody, it’s revealed, never lived up to his potential as a father or a worker. Will Forte plays an excellent straight man against Dern’s stubborn codger, while June Squibb, who plays Woody’s put-upon wife, steals the show with some of the raunchiest dialogue in all of Payne’s canon.
The ending veers toward sentimentality, but that’s the case with anything nostalgic. Nebraska delivers a funny, poignant look at the America of years past while maintaining a sense of optimism for the future.