Nebraska 90 Cast: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Bob Odenkirk, Stacy Keach, Mary Louise Wilson, Rance Howard Director: Alexander Payne Rating: R, for language Running time: 115 minutes
A rueful, sad-eyed man sits with his beaten-down, alcoholic father in a seedy bar somewhere between Montana and Lincoln, Neb. Searching ever hopefully for substantive connection with his old man, the son, recently left by his longtime girlfriend, asks himfor romantic advice.
Had the father many misgivings about getting married? “Ah,” the old man says, “I figured, what the hell?” Had he ever thought it had been a mistake? “All the time,” the father says. And thinks to add with a palpable shrug, “Could have been worse.”
Such is the level of pitiless sentiment in Alexander Payne’s black and white Midwestern road trip film. Given a premise that could have played it ever so safe and soupy - a dutiful son reluctantly drives his slightly deranged elderly father from Billings, Mont., to Lincoln because the old man is convinced beyond all reason that a nonsense sweepstakes letter proclaiming him the winner of a million dollars is, in fact, absolutely true and on the level - it instead challenges the very conventions of the genre it aims to project and creates an indelible portrait of aging and regret in the process.
Woody (Bruce Dern), crusty and irascible, is married to an overbearing woman (June Squibb) and the distant father of two grown sons, Dave (Will Forte), an AV salesman, and Ross (Bob Odenkirk), a local TV newscaster whose career appears to be on the uptick. When Woody gets the sweepstakes letter in the mail, he becomes convinced he needs to go to Lincoln and pick up his winnings in person. Since he’s no longer allowed to drive and no one else is willing to take him, he keeps trying to go there on foot - leaving his house and walking to the interstate in early winter without as much as a suitcase for a journey of some 900 miles - and gets picked up by the police in the process. In desperation, Dave, who deals with his father’s bitter terseness and his mother’s outgoing vitriol with equal amounts of patience and woebegone acceptance, finally agrees to take his father.
Naturally, everyone else realizes it’s a fool’s errand, but to his youngest son, Woody’s desire to get to Lincoln represents something the old man has needed for a very long time: a sense of purpose. En route, the two stop in Hawthorne, Neb., the small, hardscrabble town where Woody and his brothers grew up, to have a sort of impromptu family reunion. When Woody finds a cadre of old friends - and one notable enemy in his former business partner, Ed (Stacy Keach) - in a bar, he can’t help but brag on the reason for his cross-country trek, and soon the town is ablaze with the (patently false) understanding that Woody has won some sort of lottery and is now a millionaire.
As can be imagined, this sets everyone off in one direction or other: Ed demands repayment of a massive loan he supposedly made to Woody years ago, as do members of his sprawling family, while two shady younger cousins (Tim Driscoll and Devin Ratray) attempt to steal the document for themselves. But in addition to the rancor, there’s also a thread in town of genuine excitement and joy at seeing one of their own make it big. Dave and the rest of his family might well realize the folly of letting the old man continue his self-deceptive fantasy, but it’s still difficult for Dave to fully extinguish the hope the old man has conceived. Like a small, soggy ember glowing uncertainly under a pile of wet leaves and mossy kindling, the son understands his dour father’s need to believe in such a thing, even if it’s obviously misguided.
Payne’s film adapts nicely to its rangy surroundings. It’s a gorgeously filmed work, under the careful hand of director of photography Phedon Papamichael; there are many, many long, absorbing shots of small dots of cows amidst the rolling fields of the upper Midwest without ever feeling ham-handed or untrue to the nature of the area. Much like Jack Nicholson’s elderly man in About Schmidt, this isn’t a Hollywood paean to “wink wink” aging with grace and dignity; it’s about actually becoming old and obsolete and fearing that your life is of no consequence whatsoever, either to a wife who constantly berates you (though fiercely defends you if attacked from outside the family) or the sons whom, through your taciturn nature and alcoholic leanings, you’ve never particularly embraced.
What makes the film work as well as it does is the opposite of the standard Hollywood method of road-trip movies: Woody never comes around to seeing the error of his ways and loving his son the way he obviously should. Rather, Dave finally gets the opportunity to understand the old man’s motivations and character from a more objective point of view and ends up able to finally give him something of lasting worth. Despite the film’s welcome lack of obvious sentimentality, there might still be a few tears by the time the credits roll, but in one of the rarest and most treasured of big-studio experiences, they come entirely well-earned.