Every few years somebody makes a movie about an old man or woman going on a journey. There was 1985’s “The Trip To Bountiful,” 1999’s “The Straight Story,” 2002’s “About Schmidt,” and so on. It’s life-affirming to see a story about an elderly person pursuing one last dream, not giving up just yet. This year’s offering is “Nebraska.”
David (Will Forte) is a sad sack living in Billings, Montana, saddled with a crappy job and a demented, alcoholic father, Woody (Bruce Dern). When Woody becomes convinced that his junk mail is a real notice of a million dollar prize, he is single-minded in his efforts to get to Lincoln, Nebraska to collect the money. David finally gives in and agrees to drive the old guy to Lincoln. This is harder than it sounds, as anyone who cares for an elderly relative knows. Old folks need lots of bathroom breaks, and demented people tend to wander off. This is all exacerbated by Woody’s alcoholism. Despite the slow progress, David detours them through Woody’s tiny hometown. It’s the kind of town where everyone knows you and your history, and it isn’t long before everyone is celebrating Woody and his coming “riches.”
“Nebraska” is the kind of awards-season movie that people think they “should” watch, but have trouble getting around to. A black & white movie about some old codger and the state of Nebraska just doesn’t sound like a lot of fun. I’m here to tell you, “Nebraska” is better than its title. Despite its poignant subject, the film is full of comedy, as when Woody’s wife (June Squibb) hikes up her skirt in front of an old beau’s grave, saying, “See what you could have been gettin’ if you hadn’t talked about wheat all the time.” Ultimately, this is a heartwarming movie, as David learns to accept the things about his father that he can’t change. “Nebraska” isn’t a tearjerker, though, and there’s no cheap sentimentality here.
One thing this film will not do is boost Nebraska tourism. While everyone in the movie is excellent, the state of Nebraska comes off looking like, well, Nebraska. The band Soundgarden once sang about “Looking California, but feelin’ Minnesota,” but let’s face it. You could easily sing about “Looking Minnesota, but feelin’ Nebraska.” I hate to rag on a place, but I’ve driven through Nebraska more than once, and it really is as flat, windy, and often bleak as the movie depicts. Even if “Nebraska” had been filmed in color, it still would have looked like black & white.
4 stars out of 5