It's the letter everyone's received. The one that gets your attention by saying you've won a million dollars but is actually all about selling magazine subscriptions. But what if someone truly believed they'd won that million? And what if that individual was your crabby, cranky and cantankerous father and he insisted on going to prize headquarters to collect his money? In person.
That, in a nutshell, is the premise of Alexander Payne's poignant and ruefully funny "Nebraska." But summations can't convey the filmmaking delicacy that marries tart-tongued comedy with unexpected warmth in a story that touches on family, memory, getting old and staying alive. Plus allowing 77-year-old Bruce Dern the opportunity to give the performance of a lifetime.
"Nebraska" marks a homecoming of sorts for Omaha native Payne, who set his first three films in the state before turning to California ("Sideways") and Hawaii ("The Descendants"). The film's interest in road trips and obsessive personalities is also familiar, but "Nebraska" offers something deeper and more mature, the ability to make us care about its characters and their story on a different level than Payne has given us before.
A two-time Oscar winner for adapted screenplay, Payne has turned for the first time to a script he does not have a writing credit on, an original by Bob Nelson, who began his career as a comedy writer before turning his attention to Woodrow T. Grant, Woody to his friends, a man on a mission.
Elegantly shot in the wonderful but too rarely used black and white Cinemascope format by Payne regular Phedon Papamichael, "Nebraska" opens not in its namesake state but in Billings, Mont., with a shot of Woody (Dern) at his Woodiest.
Uncertain on his feet but nothing if not determined, Woody lurches unsteadily toward us, oblivious enough on a busy highway to attract police attention. His hair is disheveled, he's in need of a shave, and his clothes (carefully weathered by being put through a cement mixer and soaked with lemon juice by the costume department) have seen better days. As has Woody. But where is he going?
Woody's son David ("Saturday Night Live" veteran Will Forte hitting all the right notes in a straight dramatic role) finds the answer at the police station when the old man produces his form letter from Mega Sweepstakes Marketing and insists ("They can't say it if it's not so") he's won a fortune. No, he won't take the form to the post office ("I'm not trusting the mail with a million dollars"). Nothing will do but to go to Mega headquarters in Lincoln, Neb., in person.
The people closest to Woody, naturally, think the alcoholic old man has finally lost his mind. His aggrieved, take-no-prisoners wife, Kate (a profanely delightful June Squibb, Jack Nicholson's character's wife in Payne's "About Schmidt"), says, "I never knew the dumb cluck even wanted to be a millionaire," while his other son, Ross ("Breaking Bad's" Bob Odenkirk), is equally unsympathetic to a father who's never been there for anyone.
David thinks Woody is nuts too, but though he has a job selling sound systems at Mid City Superstore, he's just been abandoned by his girlfriend and his life is mired in lassitude. Woody's "what else you got going on?" taunt may be typically mean-spirited, but it has some truth in it, and, much to his mother and brother's disgust, David agrees to drive his father to Lincoln just to prove that there is no money there.
Stubborn, querulous and bad-tempered at the best of times, Woody is hardly at his best now, and circumstances beyond David's control detour the trip to the fictional hamlet of Hawthorne, Neb., Woody's hometown, where the bulk of the film takes place and where its themes come into tighter focus.
The creation of sharply drawn characters has always been a strength of Payne's, which is likely one reason he was attracted to Nelson's script. These include family members like Woody's devious lunkhead nephews Bart and Cole (Tim Driscoll and Devin Ratray) and assorted townsfolk, most notably Ed Pegram, a shadowy figure from Woody's past expertly played by Stacy Keach (who throws in a priceless karaoke version of "In the Ghetto" for good measure).
Woody can't help but tell folks about his million-dollar windfall, and he soon becomes the talk of the town, much to David's increasing exasperation (Forte's natural hangdog look is perfect here). It turns out these people are as eager to believe in Woody's good fortune as he is, with increasingly outrageous results.
These characters may be unknowing participants in a comedy of the everyday absurd, but "Nebraska" takes pains to treat all its people with respect, to allow them the dignity of being doggedly themselves, delusions and all. We may laugh at what they're up to, but we shake our heads in inevitable recognition as well.
Though it has its screwball elements, "Nebraska" makes its mark with its delicate emotional situations, many of which involve the relationship between Woody and David. Always looking to enhance his sketchy connection to a difficult father, David finds it tough going at first — when he asks Woody if he was ever in love with wife Kate, the old man barks, "It never came up" — but his persistence ends up paying surprising dividends for him and for us.
For in ways that are wholly unanticipated, David does come to a greater understanding of not only who his father is but how he got that way and why that phantom million dollars looms so large in his life.
None of this would have been possible, obviously, without Dern's meticulous work as the battered and baffled Woody. Restraint has not always been a hallmark of Dern's previous efforts, but he is in impressive control here with acting that does as much with looks and body language as it does with words. His character reminds us, as does the entire film, how little it takes to make us happy and how hard it is to get even that.
MPAA rating: R, for some language
Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes
Playing: ArcLight, Hollywood; Landmark, West Los AngelesCopyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times