Movie review: In 'Nebraska,' Bruce Dern walks away with the performance of a lifetime


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Another week, another Oscar-worthy performance.

This one doesn't come courtesy of an old man against the sea, a free New Yorker enslaved for a dozen years, a hell-raising Texan battling AIDS or a ship captain taken hostage by pirates.

In "Nebraska," 77-year-old Bruce Dern is -- in the unvarnished words of his wife -- a "dumb cluck" who believes he has won a million-dollar sweepstakes. Woody Grant plans to collect, even if he has to walk the 800 or so miles from his home in Billings, Mont., to Lincoln, Neb., and he starts to navigate it on foot before being stopped by the sheriff.

'Nebraska'

Starring: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb.

Rating: R for some language.


After picking up his dad at the sheriff's department, only to have him go rogue again, son David (Will Forte) decides just to drive the old man to Nebraska. David's life is none too satisfying, either, given his job selling stereo equipment and recent split with a girlfriend.

As in the best road movies, there are quirky characters, peculiar challenges, revelations and majestic vistas although in this case, they are presented in black and white. You can imagine the blue of the South Dakota sky but you will see it in black and white, which gives the movie a timeless quality and tempers the humor with heartache.

The quirky characters come in the Grants' Nebraska hometown -- Woody's onetime business partner, the lady who once was sweet on the would-be millionaire, David's macho cousins who sit transfixed in front of the television -- while the oddball situations include a search for Woody's false teeth that flew out of his mouth when he fell by train tracks in the Black Hills. When father and son hunt for dentures and find a pair, they argue about whether they're Woody's until he snaps, "Of course they're my teeth. Don't be a moron."

Yes, Woody is not a candidate for father of the year. Any year.

He likes to drink, a lot, telling David, "You'd drink, too, if you were married to your mother." But David gains new insight into both of his parents, their farm-country roots and how he might provide a measure of dignity in lieu of a fortune.

Although he didn't write the original script, Omaha native Alexander Payne ("The Descendants," "Sideways," "Election") directed "Nebraska" and this is cinematic kin to "About Schmidt." In that 2002 Payne film, Jack Nicholson was a retiree coping with loss on virtually all fronts, while Woody has long been stripped of his job, his ability to drive, his independence and his chance to leave something for his boys. David's brother, Ross (Bob Odenkirk), is a small-market TV reporter and anchorman.

Mr. Dern, with flyaway white hair, a stiff-kneed old man walk and Woody's addled-stubborn streak, was named best actor at the Cannes Film Festival for "Nebraska." He could earn the second Academy Award nomination of his career and first for leading actor; he was nominated for supporting actor for 1978's "Coming Home."

Even if he's shuffling into an empty room, he allows you to see the ghosts still residing there for him. He is two months older than Robert Redford and, like him, turning in the performance of a lifetime.

Onetime "Saturday Night Live" player Mr. Forte demonstrates surprising dramatic talent as David while June Squibb as Woody's wife is a hoot with a sharp tongue, a slightly spicy past and the ability to fling an f-word when little else will do.

"Nebraska" is about a road trip into the past and a journey that starts with a son's sense of resignation and ends with a small joyful act of rebellion, respect and love.

Opens today at the Manor Theater in Squirrel Hill.

 


Movie editor Barbara Vancheri: bvancheri@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1632. Read her blog: www.post-gazette.com/madaboutmovies.

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