Movie Reviews
3:59 pm
Wed November 13, 2013

Chasing Money, And Meaning, In 'Nebraska'

Originally published on Wed November 13, 2013 5:32 pm

Woody Grant has white hair, a cranky disposition and a stubbornness that just won't quit. When we meet him, he's being stopped by a highway patrolman as he's walking down the shoulder of a Montana interstate. His son David picks him up at the police station, and it turns out Woody was on an 850-mile stroll to Nebraska, to collect the million dollars promised to him in a letter.

David points out gently that the letter is an ad for magazine subscriptions, but he's no sooner got the older man back to his house then he gets a call from his mom: Woody has hit the road again.

As played by Bruce Dern in a performance you'll be hearing about at awards time, Woody may be slipping mentally, but he's still sharp in flashes. He also has a plain-spoken, scene-stealing wife (June Squibb), whom you might call a decent incentive for getting out of town.

The son you'd expect these two to produce — put-upon David, played with wary grace by Will Forte — decides a bit of bonding with a father he doesn't really know couldn't hurt. So they hop in his car, and soon they're passing through the town where Woody grew up, a place where the people look as weathered as the buildings, and where David discovers, despite much backslapping, that even friends can be harsh.

Director Alexander Payne (Sideways, The Descendants) shot Nebraska in black and white, a decision that gives the film's windswept landscapes a Last Picture Show meets Grapes of Wrath feel — and that makes those rugged faces seem as iconic as the ones on Mount Rushmore. (Which Woody dismisses when they drive by it, as looking unfinished.)

The filmmaker has crammed Nebraska with orneriness, humor, greed, Americana and performances so natural they seem like found objects — especially Dern's, which caps a career of character parts with a delicately nuanced character. I'm guessing the name he's been given in the film wasn't accidental. Woody Grant could have stepped straight out of Grant Wood's painting American Gothic. His story, too: crusty old coot from a dying farm town, looking for Meaning at the end of a life that may not have had one. (Recommended)

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish.

Filmmaker Alexander Payne has quite a track record: six movies, five Oscar nominations and two gold Oscar statues for "Sideways" and "The Descendants." His new road trip movie "Nebraska" opens today. It's a comedy filmed in black and white. And critic Bob Mondello says it may well make him a nominee again.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Woody Grant has hair that would be white even if it weren't being filmed in black and white. Also, a cranky disposition and a stubbornness that just won't quit. We first see Woody being stopped by a highway patrolman as he's walking down the shoulder of an interstate near Billings, Montana. When his son, David, picks him up at the police station, it turns out Woody was on an 850-mile stroll.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "NEBRASKA")

WILL FORTE: (as David Grant) So you told the sheriff that you were walking to Nebraska.

BRUCE DERN: (as Woody Grant) That's right. To get my million dollars.

MONDELLO: David is skeptical, so Woody reads the letter he got.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "NEBRASKA")

DERN: (as Woody Grant) We are now authorized to pay $1 million to Woodrow T. Grant, Billings, Montana.

MONDELLO: David points out gently that the letter is an ad for magazine subscriptions. But he's no sooner got the old man back to his house then he gets a call from his mom. Woody has hit the road again.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "NEBRASKA")

FORTE: (as David Grant) Come on. Let me take you home.

DERN: (as Woody Grant) Going to Lincoln if it's the last thing I'd do. I don't care what you people think.

FORTE: (as David Grant) Listen to me. You didn't win anything. It's a complete scam, so you got to stop this, OK?

DERN: (as Woody Grant) I'm running out of time.

FORTE: (as David Grant) You don't have a suitcase.

DERN: (as Woody Grant) I'm not staying there.

MONDELLO: Well, that's logical.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "NEBRASKA")

FORTE: (as David Grant) I can't let you go.

DERN: (as Woody Grant) It's none of your business.

FORTE: (as David Grant) Yes, it is. I'm your son.

DERN: (as Woody Grant) Well, then, why don't you take me?

MONDELLO: Again, logical.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "NEBRASKA")

FORTE: (as David Grant) I can't just drop everything and drive to Lincoln, Nebraska.

DERN: (as Woody Grant) Oh. What else you got going on?

MONDELLO: Not a lot, as it happens. Woody may be slipping mentally, but he's still sharp in flashes as played by Bruce Dern in a performance you'll be hearing about at awards time. He also has a plain-spoken, scene-stealing wife played by June Squibb, who you might call a decent incentive for getting out of town.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "NEBRASKA")

JUNE SQUIBB: (as Kate Grant) I never knew the son of a bitch even wanted to be a millionaire. He should've thought about that years ago and worked for it.

MONDELLO: The son you'd expect these two to produce - put-upon David, played with wary grace by Will Forte - decides a bit of bonding with the father he doesn't really know couldn't hurt. So they hop in his car and are soon passing through the town where Woody grew up, a place where the people - shot in black and white, remember - look as weathered as the buildings and where David discovers, despite much backslapping, that even friends...

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "NEBRASKA")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (As character) Damn, Woody Grant's a millionaire.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (As character) Next round's on Woody.

MONDELLO: ...can be harsh.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "NEBRASKA")

STACY KEACH: (As Ed Pegram) If Woody hit it rich and I didn't see any of it, that would be wrong.

FORTE: (As David Grant) Are you threatening my family?

MONDELLO: Director Alexander Payne's decision to shoot in black and white means Nebraska's wind-swept landscapes have a "Last Picture Show"-meets-"Grapes Of Wrath" feel, also that the films faces seems as iconic as Mount Rushmore, which Woody dismisses when they drive by it as looking unfinished.

The filmmaker has crammed Nebraska with orneriness and humor, greed, Americana and performance is so natural they seem like found objects, especially Bruce Dern's, which caps a career of character parts with a delicately nuanced character. I'm guessing that the name he's been given in the film wasn't accidental.

Woody Grant could have stepped straight out of Grant Wood's painting "American Gothic." His story, too. Crusty old coot from a dying farm town looking for meaning at the end of a life that may not have had one.

I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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