Bruce Dern's 'Transcendent Performance' In 'Nebraska'

It's the letter everyone's received. The one that says you've won $1 million but is actually about selling magazine subscriptions. But what if someone truly believed they'd won that million? And what if that individual was your cranky father and he insisted on going to prize headquarters to collect his money.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Back in May at the Cannes film festival, Bruce Dern won the best acting award for "Nebraska." That movie is now opening in theaters in the U.S. and here's film critic Kenneth Turan with a review.

KENNETH TURAN, BYLINE: It's the letter everyone's received. The one that says you've won a million dollars but is actually about selling magazine subscriptions. But what if someone truly believed they'd won that million? And what if that individual was your crabby, cranky father and he insisted on going to prize headquarters to collect his money? In person.

That is the premise of Alexander Payne's poignant and ruefully funny "Nebraska." It's shot in beautiful wide screen black and white and it allows 77-year-old Bruce Dern the opportunity to give the performance of a lifetime as Woodrow T. Grant, Woody to his friends. "Nebraska" opens with Woody lurching unsteadily towards us down a busy highway. But where is he going? His son David, played by "Saturday Night Live's" Will Forte, soon finds out.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "NEBRASKA")

BRUCE DERN: (as Woody) I'm going to Lincoln if it's the last thing I do.

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

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

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

DERN: (as Woody) Then why don't you take me?

TURAN: David eventually agrees to drive his father, just to prove him wrong. Woody is stubborn and bad-tempered and circumstances beyond David's control detour the trip to the fictional hamlet of Hawthorne, Nebraska, Woody's home town.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "NEBRASKA")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as Bernie) Hey, there, Woody. Remember me? Bernie Bowen. How you doing?

TURAN: Woody can't help but tell folks about his million dollar windfall and he soon becomes the talk of the town.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "NEBRASKA")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as Bernie) We're all real happy for you. And real pleased you thought to stop back home and share the big news.

DERN: (as Woody) Thanks, Bernie.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as Bernie) Hey, watch your wallet.

TURAN: These characters are all unknowing participants in a comedy of the everyday absurd but everyone in the film is allowed the dignity of being doggedly themselves, delusions and all. None of this would have been possible without Bruce Dern's transcendent performance as the battered and baffled Woody. His character reminds us, as does this wonderful film, how little it takes to make us happy, and how hard it is to get even that.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: Kenneth Turan reviews movies for MORNING EDITION and the Los Angeles Times. This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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