WOODY GRANT (Bruce Dern) is determined to get to Nebraska. He's received a form letter notifying him that he may have won $1 million, which he's inclined to accept at face value. All he has to do is go to the sweepstakes office in Lincoln and collect the prize.
There are a few obstacles: Woody is 900 miles away in Billings, Montana. He's well into his 70s and not in super-great health. He's no longer allowed behind the wheel of an automobile. And his family—his long-suffering wife Kate (June Squibb) and his two sons Ross (Bob Odenkirk) and Davy (Will Forte)—see Woody's insistence on traveling to Lincoln as a sign of oncoming dementia, or perhaps a symptom of his lifelong drinking habits.
As crookedly and doggedly as Woody attempts to walk from Billings to Lincoln (he doesn't get very far before a patrolman scoops him up), Woody's story walks the line between comic and tragic. No one's better suited for the task than writer/director Alexander Payne (Sideways, The Descendants), and it's a little surprising that he didn't write Nebraska's script himself. Screenwriter Bob Nelson did, but Payne tackles it as his own, and displays his proclivity for turning the prosaic, almost grotesquely ordinary elements of American life into grist for his darkly comic, rhythmically poetic filmmaking.
Eventually, Davy relents and offers to drive Woody to Lincoln, and the meat of the film centers on the strained relationship between father and son during their road trip. Dern's won several accolades for his performance and will no doubt receive more, but it's terrific to see SNL alum Forte taking on a role that's not explicitly comic—and nailing it. He's the heart of the movie, the human center that keeps things from turning too bleak.
And bleak seems to be what Payne is going for, from the black-and-white cinematography—employed in a matter-of-fact and not particularly arty way, thank goodness—to the chilly, barren landscapes of Nebraska that Woody and Davy travel across. An extended stop in Woody's hometown of Hawthorne turns into a series of misadventures as Woody's large extended family comes out of the woodwork, looking for a piece of the jackpot Woody says he's won. Kate and Ross eventually come out from Billings, too, and the resultant family reunion explores some interesting truths about the Grant family. Perhaps Woody has reasons to be a cantankerous grouch in his old age. Perhaps Kate isn't as much of a victim as she appears; maybe she's actually kind of a bully. And perhaps she has reason to be. Perhaps this enormous clan of relatives in Hawthorne can help Davy make sense of his father, but not in the obvious, expected Hollywood-cliché way.
What Payne and Nelson explore, to great effect, is the bizarrely resilient nature of family, and how it doesn't necessarily follow the rules of logic. Those who complain that Payne cruelly makes fun of the characters in his films won't find their opinions swayed by Nebraska, but it's worth mentioning that wizened, absent-minded Woody is never on the receiving end of Payne's skewer. There are some scenes in Nebraska that are as funny as anything I've seen. And other scenes are remarkably touching in their simplicity. Like any family's story, the Grants' is complicated and messy, and Payne tells it with economy, elegance, and an absolutely necessary sense of humor.