It's never too late to deliver a career performance. That would seem to be one of the lessons of Alexander Payne's new road drama "Nebraska," about a crotchety old father (Bruce Dern) who drags his adult son (Will Forte) on a Midwestern journey to collect a dubious sweepstakes prize. Reviews for the film, which opens Friday in limited release, have been excellent, with many critics praising 77-year-old Dern's turn as his best ever.
The Times' Kenneth Turan called the film "poignant and ruefully funny" and added, "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." The rest of the cast is solid too, with "Saturday Night Live" veteran Forte "hitting all the right notes in a straight dramatic role," and June Squibb "profanely delightful" as Dern's wife.
Turan continued: "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."
USA Today's Claudia Puig similarly wrote that "Bruce Dern gives the performance of his career as the headstrong Woody in the brilliant, wisely observed and wryly funny 'Nebraska.' ... What stands out is the fullness of the character, with mannerisms and expressions that make him wholly dimensional." She also agreed that Forte is "superb" in his subtler role and that Squibb is "very funny as Woody's eye-rolling, hectoring wife."
As for Payne, his "nimble direction, with its stunning Midwestern vistas, captures the story's wistfulness," and the result is a "perfectly pitched character study [that] artfully blends good-natured humor with haunting visual beauty and melancholy grace."
Joe Morgenstern of the Wall Street Journal said, "By the metrics of the heart, 'Nebraska' is as big as it is beautiful." He continued: "Everything turns on the father, Woody Grant, and Bruce Dern's portrait of the boozy old coot is a wonder, as well as the capstone, thus far, of that singular actor's career."
Also "extraordinary," Morgenstern said, "is what happens at the intersection of Mr. Payne's impeccable direction and Mr. [Bob] Nelson's brilliant script. The odyssey combines, quite effortlessly, prickly combat between father and son; picaresque comedy ... and a stirring exploration of Woody's past, for which he has harbored little fondness."
New York magazine's David Edelstein noted that Payne puts himself in something of a tough spot at the start. Referring to Dern's character, he wrote, "The problem going in is that it’s hard to make an emotional investment in a man so mulishly, irrationally wrong, and one who’s surly and taciturn to boot." But although "Nebraska" is "a bumpy ride," Edelstein said, "that car goes somewhere unexpected. The movie is a triumph of an especially satisfying kind. It arrives at a kind of gnarled grace that’s true to this sorry old man and the family he let down in so many ways."
And Dern certainly does his part: "What sympathy we give to Woody we’re probably giving to Dern," who "gives a beautiful performance, near-pantomime -- broken with the odd expulsive obscenity."
The New York Times' A.O. Scott, who said the film "blossoms into a study of provincial American absurdity worthy of Preston Sturges," also has praise for Dern. Referring to Woody, Scott wrote, "Dern turns this inarticulate, alcoholic lump of humanity -- too passive to be a monster, too distracted to be charming -- into a great screen character. He is far from heroic, or even noble, but Woody’s stubbornness, and the waves of unacknowledged feeling that emanate from his grizzled, shapeless face and unsteady, bulky frame, make him worth caring about. Not that it's easy for anyone."
As for Dern himself, he might soon find himself navigating another tortuous road: the path through awards season.
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