Never underestimate the restorative power of a road trip. That's one of the messages of the comedy and drama blend "Nebraska" (Paramount Vantage).
This quiet, unassuming, yet in part delightful film tackles a big issue—caring for elderly parents—with realism and sensitivity. Even as it celebrates familial love, respect and understanding, however, screenwriter Bob Nelson's script also includes material that makes this journey through the heartland an unsuitable outing for most viewers.
Director Alexander Payne ("The Descendants") made a wise decision to shoot his picture in black and white. The result is a canvas both stark and rich, a study in contrasts which suits the combative family relationships on display.
Woody (Bruce Dern), the grizzled and frail patriarch, receives a sweepstakes solicitation in the mail offering a "prize" of $1 million, to be collected in person in Lincoln, Neb. That's a long way from his home in Montana, but Woody is convinced he's a winner.
Unable to drive, showing signs of dementia, and an alcoholic to boot, Woody sets out on foot, much to the consternation of his overbearing wife, Kate (June Squibb). She sides with one of her sons, Ross (Bob Odenkirk), in deciding that it's time for Woody to be committed to an institution.
Her other son, David (Will Forte), is much more sympathetic. "Dad doesn't need a nursing home," he tells Ross. "He needs something to live for."
As crazy as it sounds, David consents to drive his father to Lincoln to collect his "winnings." For David, it's a change of pace from his mundane existence as a salesman, and an opportunity to mend fences with his estranged father. That's easier said than done, given Woody's short attention span and fondness for disappearing in search of beer.
An extended pit stop brings the duo to Woody's hometown, now much changed. Enter the dotty extended family, including Woody's brother, Ray (Rance Howard), Ray's wife, Martha (Mary Louise Wilson), and their devious grown boys, Bart (Tim Driscoll) and Cole (Devin Ratray).
Before long, Woody reveals his status as a supposed millionaire. This makes him the hometown hero, and soon all of his old "friends" come calling, hoping to share in his good fortune. Among them is Woody's former business partner Ed (Stacy Keach), who's looking to settle a few scores.
"Nebraska" takes its good time, inviting the audience to savor the hard-bitten slice of middle America on display, warts and all. Amid the salty language and bawdy humor, there are some positive core values and good people on display, the latter too often obscured by the few bad eggs.
The film contains frequent profane and crude language, some sexual references and innuendoes and a few jokes directed at Catholics. The Catholic News Service classification is L—limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is R—restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
Joseph McAleer is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.
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