Alexander Payne’s remarkable “Nebraska” is the third in a trio of the director’s films that have hit me like a ton of bricks. I think it is because I — and so many other people in the audience at Payne’s movies — are so easily able to see themselves in his stories.
With “Sideways,” I saw a little bit (but, luckily, not too much) of my own father in Paul Giamatti’s wine-swilling character. “The Descendants” (which many complained was too sentimental) hit me hard since I also lost my mother at a young age like George Clooney’s young daughters in the film and was left with a father who didn’t know what the hell to do with an 11-year-old girl.
And even though I’ve never been a middle-aged stereo salesman in Montana who has to drive his senile father to Nebraska after he believes he has won $1 million dollars, I felt like I could have been. Perhaps because for the first time over this past Thanksgiving I witnessed the horrible toll that senile dementia has taken on my grandmother who kept calling me “Debbie” as I tried through streams of tears to help her remember who I was.
“Nebraska” is another road trip film, a la “Sideways,” but with a familial journey more similar to the one in “The Descendants.” But instead of a father with two young daughters, a comatose wife and a cheating scandal, “Nebraska” is simply the story of a father and a son.
By now you’ve probably read about the premise and many of the reviews, so I’ll spare you all of the details. But in “Nebraska,” an aging, senile alcoholic named Woody, played crushingly by Bruce Dern (who is up for a best actor Golden Globe), gets a certificate in the mail that says he has won $1 million bucks. His youngest son David, played quietly by the unusually quiet “Saturday Night Live” alum Will Forte drives him to Nebraska to pick up his money even though he knows it doesn’t exist. David wants to let his father have his fun while he is still (barely) lucid enough to function.
On the way to Lincoln, they stop in Woody’s hometown where he is now famous for becoming a fake millionaire.
Woody’s wife Kate is sick and tired of dealing with him wandering off all the goddamn time and wants to put him in a home. She likes to tell David that in her younger years all of the boys wanted to get inside her bloomers. She even flashes and ex-boyfriend’s headstone to show him what he missed. (Kate, played with screeching hilarity by June Squibb, received a well-deserved best supporting actress Golden Globe nod.)
“Nebraska” is funny, sad, wacky and beautiful. Payne and screenwriter Bob Nelson used the sparse, black and white landscape for us to lay bare our own memories of years gone by. Watching Woody descend into a futile state of unawareness is heartbreaking, but what David does for him is how we wish we could all be to our more difficult family members.
It’s not that the premise of “Nebraska” is a familiar story, but that we’ve all known and loved characters like these in our own lives, which is what makes the film so heartbreaking and bittersweet — and even personal.