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‘Nebraska’: Bruce Dern in the best role of his career

‘NEBRASKA’ ★★★★

Woody Bruce Dern

David Will Forte

Ed Stacy Keach

Kate June Squibb

Ross Bob Odenkirk

Paramount Vantage presents a film directed by Alexander Payne and written by Bob Nelson. Running time: 110 minutes. Rated R (for language). Opening Friday at AMC River East, Landmark Century and Century 12 in Evanston.

Updated: December 23, 2013 12:29PM



We have a tendency to think our parents’ lives started when we were born, or at least when they were married. If there’s a photo of young mom and dad hanging on the wall above the staircase or on the mantle, odds are it’s a wedding portrait.

By that measure, for parents it has to be strange when your children are in their 40s — much older than you were when you had them. Is it any wonder the dynamic between parents and their middle-aged children is often so strange?

“Nebraska” taps into that. “Nebraska” taps into a lot of universal truths while telling a story about the kind of ordinary people not often showcased in 2013 movies.

With a touch of “The Last Picture Show” and a running story line you might have found in a Preston Sturges film, “Nebraska” is a stark, sad, beautiful and memorable film. This is a modern American classic about the dynamic between a father from the generation that didn’t speak about its feelings, a grown son who’s still trying to get his father to explain himself — and a distant past that explains more than the old man would ever care to talk about.

It’s not often an actor gets the best role of his career at age 77. Especially when that actor is Bruce Dern, who has more than a dozen great performances on a resume that dates back to the 1960s. But in Alexander Payne’s latest film, Dern is nothing short of magnificent. What a joy it is to watch him playing such a miserable SOB.

Shot in beautiful tones of black and white (and silver and gray), “Nebraska” is steeped in nostalgia, regret and bittersweet moments. Yet it’s also a pitch-perfect cinematic poem about the times we live in.

Dern plays Woody Grant. (Grant Wood painted “American Gothic,” which, like “Nebraska,” seems to tread the line between straightforward portrayal and maybe just a tad of wry commentary.) He’s one of those crabby, boozy, sometimes delusional old guys who probably were crabby, boozy and maybe even delusional when they were 40.

Walk into any small-town tavern or VFW Hall and you’ll find a guy like Woody, who just wants you to get out of his way and leave him alone — at least on the surface. Dern gets him just right, from the “I don’t give a [bleep]” crazy hair to the blunt way of expressing himself to the occasional flicker of genuine emotion in his eyes. From an actor who’s never been afraid to go big, it is a symphony of small, subtle notes.

Convinced he’s won a million dollars in one of those hokey magazine subscription sweepstakes in which the fine print explains in all likelihood you most certainly did NOT win a million dollars, Woody is determined to make it from Billings, Mont., to Lincoln, Neb., to collect his winnings.

And if that means walking, Woody will walk.

Will Forte from “Saturday Night Live” is a revelation as Woody’s son David, one of those nice, slightly sad guys whose name you forget two minutes after meeting him. Whether he’s at his nowhere job trying to sell sound systems to smart-ass kids, awkwardly attempting to win back his wife, enduring the bleating criticisms of his mother or looking out for his ungrateful father, David perseveres. Someday life’s gonna give him a break.

Not once does Forte go for an overly punctuated line reading or an easy-laugh double-take, even when circumstances might warrant it. He’s like a live-action version of the straight man in a New Yorker cartoon. We see everything through him.

Also turning in terrific supporting work is June Squibb as Woody’s acidic wife, whose running commentary about various relatives and townsfolk is viciously funny; Bob Odenkirk as David’s older brother Ross, a Montana TV reporter, and Stacy Keach as Woody’s former business partner, who got the best of Woody a generation ago and isn’t too pleased when Woody shows up on his way to collecting a million-dollar prize.

In some ways “Nebraska” follows a classic road-trip map, with David doing everything he can to appease Woody and also to get some kind of closure with his old man. But there’s also an extended stay in Woody’s hometown of Hawthorne. Somehow, some way, the townsfolk come to believe Woody has actually won that million dollars, a farcical goldmine that also leads to some brutally honest confrontations.

Payne’s camera paints a bleak, stark and yet hauntingly beautiful portrait of a town time has passed by. It’s here we learn some heartbreaking truths about Woody’s past, and we come to understand why he is the way he is.

With a nomination-worthy screenplay by Bob Nelson, Payne’s nimble direction and brilliant work from Dern and the supporting cast down to the last bit player, “Nebraska” is film as true art.

Email: rroeper@suntimes.com

Twitter: @richardroeper



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