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posted: 11/21/2013 5:45 AM

With 'Nebraska,' Payne enters state of hilarious seriousness

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  • Woody (Bruce Dern), left, travels to Nebraska with his son David (Will Forte) in Alexander Payne's drama "Nebraska."

      Woody (Bruce Dern), left, travels to Nebraska with his son David (Will Forte) in Alexander Payne's drama "Nebraska."

  • Woody (Bruce Dern), left, takes a road trip to Nebraska with his son David (Will Forte) in Alexander Payne's drama "Nebraska."

      Woody (Bruce Dern), left, takes a road trip to Nebraska with his son David (Will Forte) in Alexander Payne's drama "Nebraska."

  • Video: "Nebraska" trailer

 
 

The hilariously serious "Nebraska," photographed in glorious black-and-white, tells the slow-moving story of an elderly man on the cusp of dementia chasing a phony million-dollar sweepstakes prize he will never collect.

Will it be a bigger commercial hit than "Hunger Games: Catching Fire"? I'm guessing not.

But Alexander Payne's excellent drama offers its own brand of quirky joys, including a transparently earnest performance by Chicago native Bruce Dern, plus surprisingly strong dramatic characters from comic performers Will Forte of "Saturday Night Live" and Naperville native Bob Odenkirk, as well as a showstopping turn by June Squibb as their crusty mom.

Payne uses Montana and his home state of Nebraska as settings for an exploration of family ties similar to the ones he examined in the Hawaii-set "The Descendants." In both movies, he explores how the promise of big money has the power to alter family dynamics, and not in good ways.

"Nebraska" opens with Woody Grant (Dern) being picked up by the cops after wandering down the highway in Billings, Mont.

His son David (Forte) gets the call to go pick him up. Turns out that Woody has received a sweepstakes notification suggesting he has already won $1 million. All he has to do is order some magazines to clinch his winnings.

"I never even knew (he) even wanted to be a millionaire!" his sassy wife, Kate (Squibb), says. "He should have thought about that years ago and worked for it!"

Woody won't be swayed by warnings that the prize is just a come-on.

To Woody, the notification is real, and he intends to go all the way to the sweepstakes headquarters in Lincoln, Neb., to claim his loot. He'll walk if necessary.

So, David agrees to take his dad on a trip rife with emotional potholes, dramatic speed-bumps and comical detours. Maybe, he can get to know his father better.

On the way, David presses for information from the inarticulate Woody, who dismisses him with "Doesn't matter!"

Nothing quite prepares us for the scene in which David and Dad show up for an unannounced family reunion in a dinky town where their relatives, cloistered in a living room while watching sports, stare blankly into space and appear to be unable to converse about anything but cars and sports.

(As a central Illinois native with experience in small-town family reunions, I can verify the realism of this scene, bumped up -- only slightly -- to comic extremes. It almost induced a bad case of post-dramatic stress disorder.)

By this time, Kate and older son Ross (Odenkirk) have joined Woody and David at the home of Woody's brother Ray (Rance Howard) and his two extremely beefy sons (Devin Ratray and Tim Driscoll) who have their intellectual lights switched to dim. They lead an ugly uprising of suddenly greedy kin when news of Woody's impending fortune spreads.

Even Woody's former business partner (Stacy Keach) tries to put the muscle on Woody.

Throughout "Nebraska," Forte's inexplicably sad and unmotivated David looks for paternal approval and connection, but can only grab spotty details about Woody from his mom and a newspaper employee (an ebullient Angela McEwan) who shares a little history.

Every character in "Nebraska" emanates spot-on authenticity, especially Dern's determined dad, not given to easy sentimentality or comical overkill, and Odenkirk's Ross, a pained portrait of a middle-aged son with dreams of becoming an anchorman in a market without much news.

"Woody didn't win anything!" Ross tells his kinfolk.

But that's not true, for at the end of this story, Woody and his family win something.

Just not money.

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