Nebraska's central character, seventysomething Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), has the headfirst, quick-step dodder of a toddler, dangerously fast and ever on the edge of a tumble. And a tumble is surely coming. Woody has fixed all his hopes on a fantasy: winning a fortune in a Publisher's Clearing House-like scam. Is Woody addled by dementia or just clinging to a desperate dream at the end of his life? His exhausted, crabby wife, Kate (June Squibb), views him as a drunk and a disappointment, and she has no patience for him. But their son David (Will Forte) agrees to drive him from their home in Billings, Mont., to Lincoln, Neb., where Woody is convinced a $1 million prize is waiting for him, a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
It turns out the rainbow is an endless Interstate, rendered in ugly grays. (The film was shot in color and converted to black-and-white afterward.) If anybody's a leprechaun in this scenario, it's Woody, though he's really more of a troll; he even has the finger-in-the-socket hair of those plastic troll dolls kids collected in the '80s. A more conventional narrative would make the trip a redemptive one: An asshole dad bonds with his estranged son and becomes a better man in the process. But Nebraska, scripted by Bob Nelson, is about David finding peace with his father, not the other way around.
A dry and exacting humorist whose films include The Descendants, About Schmidt and Sideways, director Alexander Payne makes strong observational comedies. A funny, detached picture of Midwesterners, Nebraska is par for the course. Born and bred in Nebraska, Payne can smirk at the culture he comes from. He gets great work and genuine feeling out of his lead actors. Forte, a Saturday Night Live alum, slants his eyebrows like two sides of a teepee, forming an expression of constant distress. He's a surprising fount of melancholy and frustrated ambition, while Dern takes a tough part -- a man of few words whose mind may be dwindling -- and controls his body masterfully to convey Woody's inner depths.