Bruce Dern plays Woody Grant, a booze-addled father, in 'Nebraska.' (Merie W. Wallace / AP)
Director Alexander Payne walks a fine line between condescension and affection in his latest film, “Nebraska.”
And, as usual, he comes down on the sweet side.
But only after he’s painted a fairly bleak portrait of losers and oddballs in American Midwestern farm towns. It’s obvious he loves small-town America, but he also likes to make fun of it.
Shot in rustic black-and-white, “Nebraska” follows an old alcoholic named Woody Grant (a finely grizzled Bruce Dern) who receives a sweepstakes letter in the mail and believes he has won $1 million.
His ornery wife Kate (June Squibb) tells him he’s crazy, but he keeps setting out on foot to walk from Billings, Mont., to Lincoln, Neb. to claim his prize.
His oldest son Ross (Bob Odenkirk), a TV newscaster, wants to put Woody in a home, but his other son, David (Will Forte), a lost soul who sells stereos at an appliance store, decides to humor the crotchety old man and drive him to Lincoln.
So off they go.
Along the way, Woody bangs his head while drunk, loses his false teeth and generally acts disagreeable. Finally David decides to make a stop in Woody’s hometown of Hawthorne, Neb., and reconnect with relatives. Kate and Ross come over as well, and it’s a family reunion.
Except Woody brags about the million he’s won, which stirs up all sorts of ghosts.
Payne, working from a script by Bob Nelson, fills the movie with goofy characters, from David’s lunkhead cousins to his monosyllabic uncles and foul-mouthed Kate.
But ultimately, Woody and David bond in a tight-lipped way. And even if you never quite like the old man, you feel better for him.
“Nebraska,” it turns out, isn’t as bleak as it first looks.
Rated R for some language
Running time: 115 minutes