Why does son David (Will Forte) drive his aged, possibly demented, alcoholic father Woody (Bruce Dern) from his home in Montana to Nebraska in Alexander Payne‘s comedy-drama of the same name? Because Woody mistakenly believes a sweepstakes letter he’s received makes him a new millionaire. So he’s now eager to get to their central office in Lincoln to collect his money.
Although David and the rest of the family know the letter is just a come-on designed to sell magazines, Woody can’t be convinced. So he keeps trying the impossible task of making it there on foot, meaning it’s David who keeps getting called to go pick him up somewhere—clearly it’s David’s role because no one else wants it.
What else is going on in David’s life? His girlfriend has recently moved out. His job involves selling audio products, which he performs in his usual low-key noncommittal way.
After a series of frustrating experiences regarding Woody’s fantasy, David decides what the heck—he calls in sick, succumbing to the idea of taking Woody on his road trip. Hey, maybe it’s a chance to bond with his inscrutable dad at last.
Meanwhile, David’s brother Ross (Bob Odenkirk) and mom Kate (June Squibb), “a formidable force, a foulmouthed voice of reason” (Christy Lemire, rogerebert.com) are both angry and fed up about Woody and his chronically crazy behavior.
Check out the trailer to the film, which was shot in black and white:
The Trip and Family Dynamics
Christy Lemire, rogerebert.com: “Along the way, Woody and David stop to see Mount Rushmore (dad is unimpressed) before making an extended visit to Woody’s hometown in Nebraska. The son becomes increasingly frazzled by his inability to keep his father out of his dive-bar haunts and stop him from spouting off about his alleged windfall.”
During an extended-family visit, Ross and June decide to come out and meet up with everyone.
David Edelstein, New York Magazine, about Woody: “The question hangs from first frame to last: How much is in there? How much does he know? How much does he feel? Dern gives a beautiful performance, near-pantomime—broken with the odd expulsive obscenity.”
And Joe Williams, stltoday.com, adds that he’s “not quite as monstrous as he seems.” Furthermore, although his wife is generally miserable about her mate, “When the vultures circle, Katie is his feistiest protector.”
David Edelstein, New York Magazine:
Nebraska has something close to a feel-good ending, and it’s not—miraculously—a cheat. Payne and screenwriter Nelson pull a rabbit out of their hat. They turn their focus inward; they go to the emotional source of Woody’s quest, his idée fixe. They even account—obliquely—for his dementia, which must be partly willed, the longed-for stupor of a man who doesn’t want to reckon with a half-lived life. His sudden connection with the son who sticks by him in spite of everything is worth the price of a ticket—ours and David’s. At the end of the road, you feel like a million bucks.