Dec 11, 2013

A country for an old man.


Grade: A-

Director: Alexander Payne (Descendants)

Screenplay: Bob Nelson

Cast: Bruce Dern (Django), Will Forte (The Watch)

Rating: R

Runtime: 115 Min.

by John DeSando

It is good even for old men to learn wisdom.

That wisdom is a long time coming for geezers like Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), who’s certain he’s won a million in a Mega Sweepstakes Marketing Prize.  The black and white, poignant Nebraska is a road film about that old man and his son, David (Will Forte), as he takes dad from his home in Billings, Montana, to the prize office in Lincoln, Nebraska, to claim his money. No digital proof for him—just the pieces of junk mail that he counts on to comply with his credo that he believes what people tell him.

Along the way on this gentle and fulfilling journey, David meets old friends and relatives in Hawthorne, Nebraska (Main Street stores and old folk images straight out of Walker Evans), where the two sojourners rest for a few days. Of course, director Alexander Payne mines the descendants, eccentrics, and aging folks for laughs and not a small amount of local lore about rivalries from the old days and the meaning of wealth.  Yet with all that wealth to come, Woody wants only to buy a truck, even though he doesn’t drive. As he did in Descendants and About Schmidt, Payne gently lampoons the selfishness and greed of family and friends.

Woody’s wife, a tell-it-like-it-is-Melissa-McCarthy type, provides the recurring comic irony in what is otherwise a melancholy peek at the fading dreams and values of the heartland and, by extension, America. To walk the streets of Hawthorne is to face an economy that has let everyone, even whole towns, down with little to look forward to but death. So, too, with Woody, who mostly lets everyone down with his alcoholism for most of this life. But he’s family, and a son has his duty.

Like Alvin Straight’s Odyssey to his ailing brother on a tractor in The Straight Story, Woody needs to complete this road trip before he goes on his final journey.  He may see that money brings out the worst in some friends and relatives; David’s reward is to learn that dad has some romantic and heroic parts of his past worth admiring. Woody doesn’t seem to learn a thing, but David grows enough to give dad love that he hadn’t shown before.

We learn about the dreams an old man can hold onto despite the naysayers. Although younger folk don’t like to encourage foolishness in elders, it may be more joyful to let them dream with hope. No one is lying, much less the old because wishes can come true and obliterate the lies we need to tell ourselves before we shuffle off this mortal coil:

Lord, Lord, how subject we old men are to this vice of lying!

William Shakespeare 

John DeSando co-hosts WCBE 90.5’s It’s Movie Time and Cinema Classics, which can be heard streaming and on-demand at Contact him at