DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
Director Alexander Payne's sixth feature film is a comedy set in his home state of Nebraska. In fact, it's called "Nebraska." Bruce Dern plays an old man convinced he has won a magazine sweepstakes, and former "Saturday Night Live" cast member Will Forte is the son who reluctantly agrees to drive him the long distance to collect. Film critic David Edelstein went along for the ride.
DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: Last month, I saw the trailer for Alexander Payne's "Nebraska," and only the fact it was a Payne film made me want to see it. The premise seemed a dead end. Bruce Dern plays an elderly man named Woody Grant living in Billings, Montana, who gets a letter saying he's won $1 million, and all he needs to do is call a number and maybe buy a magazine subscription.
Instead of laughing it off, Woody insists on traveling hundreds of miles to company headquarters in Lincoln, Nebraska for his fortune - walking, if need be. I doubt Payne had much to do with that trailer, but it's awful. Do you want to see another whimsical tale of a puckish elder doing the darndest things while yokels cheer him on?
I admit my prejudice, because in the end, "Nebraska" is a special kind of triumph, a movie I argued with constantly, but won me over. It was hard to make an emotional investment in Woody, who's not just wrong about the prize, but ornery, alcoholic and - according to his belligerent wife played by June Squibb - a lousy husband and worse dad.
Watching it, though, I gave Woody the benefit of the doubt because of Dern, an actor who never quite found a niche, but hung on honorably and, incidentally, gave us a treasure in his daughter, Laura. Dern always had a runner's gauntness, but as Woody, he's painfully thin, with a shock of white hair and eyes that are mostly cast down.
When he lifts them, though, they're huge and liquid. It's a beautiful, near pantomime performance. "Nebraska" is a road movie, and since Woody lost his driver's license and his family won't let him walk, it all comes down to his son David, played by Will Forte, an electronics salesman whose long-time girlfriend just decamped.
David finds Woody trudging through the snow, bound yet again for Nebraska.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "NEBRASKA")
WILL FORTE: (as David) Dad. Dad.
BRUCE DERN: (as Woody) Leave me alone.
FORTE: (as David) Come on. Let me take you home.
DERN: (as Woody) I'm going to Lincoln, if it's the last thing I do. And I don't care what you people think.
FORTE: (as David) Listen to me. You didn't win anything. It's a complete scam. So you've got to stop this. OK?
DERN: (as Woody) I'm running out of time.
FORTE: (as David) You don't even have a suitcase.
DERN: (as Woody) I'm not staying there.
FORTE: (as David) Dad, 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) Well, then why don't you take me?
FORTE: (as David) I can't just drop everything and drive to Lincoln, Nebraska.
DERN: (as Woody) Oh. What else you got going on?
EDELSTEIN: Will Forte is an ordinary-looking guy with a manic streak that, in comedy, takes him strange and exhilarating places. He doesn't tap that mania in "Nebraska." He's the harried straight man, but his energy keeps the movie bouncing along. David reacts to everything, while his father appears to register nothing - appears to. Alcohol, as well as age, has burned out many synapses, and Woody never was given to talk.
The question hangs: How much does the old man see and feel? The movie's true destination turns out not be Lincoln, but a stopover, the small Nebraska town where Woody once made his life. His extended family is there, and so are many old neighbors and friends, uneasy friends like the ex-business partner played by a hard, scary Stacy Keach, who says Woody owes him money, and now that he's a millionaire, hand it over.
There's a tension between the crabbed characters and the expansive wide frames, heavy on farmland iconography and cows and puffy clouds, shot by Phedon Papamichael in crisp and gorgeous black and white. In one scene, Woody joins his elderly brothers for a reunion. The old men sit in plaid shirts before a TV, trading monosyllables without looking one another's way.
It's an easy sight gag, but their fine, weathered features turn it into something mysterious and iconic. "Nebraska" is a superb balancing act. The whimsy is always cut by settings redolent of alcohol and rust and old man bars. But it's never too grim, as Woody's hellion wife, the diminutive June Squibb, blasts out her putdowns and brings down the house, along with her targets.
Bob Odenkirk pairs perfectly with Forte as Woody's more successful son, a TV reporter. And in the end, Payne and screenwriter Bob Nelson pull a rabbit out of their hat. The real journey hasn't been to a silly sweepstakes company. They turn the focus inward. They go to the emotional heart of Woody's absurd, quixotic quest. Maybe there's no cash at road's end, but we feel like a million bucks.
BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine. You can download podcasts of our show at freshair.npr.org, and follow us on Twitter @nprfreshair and on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com.