Woody Grant’s (Bruce Dern) days are numbered — each one drawing him closer to that plot of land next to his parents and siblings’ graves in the Hawthorne, Neb., cemetery. His adult sons, Ross (Bob Odenkirk) and Davey (Will Forte), are spending the better part of their days tracking him down, searching for his misplaced possessions and bailing him out of jail.
His wife, Kate (June Squibb), says she’ll put him in a nursing home.
It’s hard to tell if she’s serious.
Woody Grant’s the latest somber Everyman to star in one of director Alexander Payne’s movies. Other characters included retired Warren Schmidt of “About Schmidt” (2002), divorced best man Miles of “Sideways” (2004) and about-to-be-widowed parent Matt King of “Descendants” (2011).
Like Payne’s award-winning canon, “Nebraska” shows you the tenderness tucked beneath a stubborn and aging drunk, absent for most of his children’s lives.
It takes a letter that says he’d been awarded a million dollars in a magazine sweepstakes to wake him up.
Armed with a piece of paper, Woody’s determined to walk 850 miles from his home in Billings, Mont., to Lincoln, Neb. — just to collect his winnings.
“I’m running out of time,” he says.
That may be true, but faced with his own mortality, Woody hides under his wide, owlish eyes and childlike naivety. “What?” seems to be his go-to response.
We’ve all seen those scams, designed to target the elderly. His wife and sons warn him.
But Woody’s trusting and gullible. So David reluctantly drives his old man across the Midwest, for a fortune that may not exist.
Bob Nelson’s script succeeds in holding a mirror against our humanity, showing us the role reversals as we age.
“Hey, wake up,” Woody pleads like an impatient child, leaning over his son and shaking him awake. “Are we going to Lincoln today?”
His son enunciates his words slowing, repeating them often as if talking to a child (or an animal). But like us, Davey’s also leaning closer, listening closely and looking for some profound nugget of wisdom (or history). Old men are supposed to be wise, aren’t they?
As we ride along the dusty roads, touring Mount Rushmore, aging mid-American towns once filled with children, and Memory Lane, we’re reminded of better times — like when a million dollars was worth more than a day in the hospital or the living expenses of a nursing home.
Filmed in black and white, “Nebraska” could have taken place in the past, future or the day after yesterday. It’s a timeless story — like those of the migrant workers, chasing after California gold in 1848. It’s a trip full of disappointment, but every once in a while, the streets still sparkle with gold.
“Nebraska” was directed by Nebraska native Alexander Payne and written by Bob Nelson.