What is it about taking a road trip with a family member that seems like such a good idea in theory? Putting oneself in unfamiliar territory while trying to rebuild an inevitably fractured relationship can rarely result in anything other than frayed nerves, arguments and tears. Yet so many of us have taken the plunge because we thought our road trip would be different.
And so it goes with Alexander Payne’s bittersweet, comedy-drama, NEBRASKA.
Curmudgeon Woody Grant lives in Billings, Montana along with his long-suffering wife of close to 50 years, Kate. Woody is not altogether there, thanks to a lifetime of heavy drinking and, now, the onset of Alzheimer’s. When he receives a letter in the mail that he may have just won a million dollars in one of those publishers’ sweepstakes, he starts walking to Lincoln, Nebraska – a distance of 850 miles across three states – to claim his prize. His son, David, intercepts him just outside Billings and brings him back home to try to talk some sense into him but Woody will hear nothing of it. He wants his money. David eventually gives in, thinking that a road trip with his dad might be good for their relationship. You see, Woody was not the best father in the world. Besides being drunk most of the time, Woody is not the most talkative person. His experience fighting in the Korean War 60 years earlier affects him even today.
So David and Woody jump into David’s car and head off to Lincoln. En route, a nighttime fall after a few too many beers puts Woody in the hospital and their plans quickly change. David decides to stop off at Woody’s family in fictional Hawthorne, Nebraska for a few days to give Woody a chance to heal. In the meantime, Kate and their older son, Ross, decide to trek to Hawthorne too, to make it a full family reunion.
When Woody reveals to brothers’ families and his old friends about his million dollar windfall, the vultures start circling. The family says he owes them money for all their support over the years while his ex-business partner demands repayment (and then some!) of the money he lent to Woody many years earlier. Even though David and Ross insist that there is no money, no one believes them. Now David not only has to protect Woody from himself; he has to protect him from his family and friends.
Alexander Payne, who previously wrote and directed SIDEWAYS and THE DESCENDANTS, seems to be attracted to stories that deal with life’s unpredictable messiness. In NEBRASKA, he chose to shoot the film in black-and-white, which served to highlight both the starkness of the landscape and the Grant family’s lives.
There is plenty of humour in the film, though it is slow in coming. A scene showing the elderly Grant brothers watching Sunday football on TV seems very reminiscent of Grant Wood’s classic painting, American Gothic. (Could there be a connection with the family name being Grant?) The film also features some of the best Upper Midwest American accents since FARGO.
NEBRASKA stars Bruce Dern, who was nominated for an Academy Award® for this role, comedian Will Forte, June Squibb, Stacy Keach and Bob Odenkirk, whom audiences may know as the sleazy lawyer Saul Goodman on TV’s BREAKING BAD.
This is a great film but you don’t need to go to the cinema to see it. Rent it or download it (legally, of course). You’ll enjoy it.
Listen to the review online on Radio 4. (Click on the link. Select Part 2 and slide the time bar over to 36:04)