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Coming home to 'Nebraska'

Published December 27. 2013 05:00PM

Apparently, not much happens in Montana and Nebraska.

Not much happens in "Nebraska" the film, either.

And yet, indelible images remain fixed in your mind's eye after seeing this modest film from director Andrew Payne ("Descendents," 2011; "Sideways," 2004).

Scenes depict the stark Nebraska landscape as Woody (Bruce Dern) and his son, David (Will Forte) drive from Billings, Mont., to Lincoln, Neb., to "claim" a $1 million-prize in a Publishers' Clearing House type magazine subscription promotion.

Woody is convinced he's actually won $1 million, despite logical explanations to the contrary provided by David, an electronics and appliances story sales person, and his other son, Ross (Bob Odenkirk), plus the skepticism of his wife, Kate (June Squibb).

And there's that little matter of the return of an air compressor, loaned some 40 years ago to Ed (Stacy Keach), but never returned.

You will also remember dialogue and haggard faces in scenes between Woody and his relatives during a stop in Hawthorne, Neb.

The impressions linger because of Payne's meticulous direction, convincing performances (including several by non-actors cast at locations for the film), but more significantly because the film is in black and white. As with films on Turner Classic Movies, images, dialogue and story burn into your brain.

It's said we dream (mostly) in black and white. Movies can be the stuff of dreams, of our subconscious, of memory, of our projections of the future.

"Nebraska" is about the American Dream, or the dreams that many of us have, of winning a lottery, of a get-rich quick scheme, or, in Woody's case, of getting that one thing always wanted, as well as leaving a legacy for one's children.

In the slow-paced, gently-humorous, evocatively-dramatic "Nebraska," director Andrew Payne lets aspects of Woody's life unfold through anecdotes heard during encounters with family members, friends and acquaintances. The story ambles along almost imperceptibly until a series of small events builds to a satisfying, if melancholy, climax.

"Nebraska" is a Golden Globe, comedy or musical, nominee. Payne is a Golden Globe director nominee.

The plain-spoken dialogue is down-to-earth, naturalistic and believable in the theatrical release screenplay debut by Bob Nelson.

Nelson is a Golden Globe screenplay nominee.

The unobtrusive soundtrack with music by Mark Orton emphasizes guitar, trumpet and keyboards.

Bruce Dern, 77 (TV's "Big Love"; Oscar supporting actor nomination, "Coming Home," 1978; and Laura Dern's father) as Woody, lumbers about on wobbly knees, conveying a peevish stoicism wrapped around a seething anger. He plays a character of few words, but when he does speak, the effect is like a sonic boom.

For the role, Dern received the 2013 Cannes Film Festival actor award, is a Golden Globe actor, comedy, nominee, and a presumptive Oscar actor nominee.

Will Forte (TV's "30 Rock," 2007 - '12; "Saturday Night Live," 2002 - '12), as David, is affable (think a young Jeff Daniels) and patient to a fault with his father. His compassion knows no bounds. He respects his dear old crotchety dad, showing him tender mercies, especially a genuine and grand gesture of gratitude that occurs late in the film.

June Squibb, 84 ("About Schmidt," 2002) as Kate is really the film's center, the core, the stable, if trash-talking, matriarch who has seen it all and stays anyway. She loves with the unconditional love and devotion of Big Mama for Big Daddy in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof."

Squibb is a Golden Globe, supporting actor, comedy, nominee.

"Nebraska" is like a holiday gathering film released during the Thanksgiving and Christmas seasons, but without those holidays as the centerpiece. Instead, an old man's shenanigans, hopes and misplaced dreams become metaphor for a future, however bleak, shared by those we love.

"Nebraska," while more of a "It's a Terrible Life" than "It's a Wonderful Life," is still what we come home for at the holidays: the connection to those we love and those who love us back no matter what.

And that's worth a million and more.

"Nebraska," MPAA Rated R (Restricted. Children Under 17 Require Accompanying Parent or Adult Guardian.) for some language; Genre: Adventure, Drama; Run time: 1 hour 45 min.; Distributed by Paramount Vantage.

Credit Readers Anonymous: "Nebraska" is the fourth movie by director Alexander Payne, a Nebraska native, taking place in his home state. The others were "Citizen Ruth" (starring Laura Dern), 1996; "Election," 1999; and "About Schmidt," 2002.

Unreel, Dec. 27:

"The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," PG: Ben Stiller directs and stars with Kristen Wiig in the fantasy comedy about a day-dreamer who embarks on a global journey.

"August: Osage County," R: Tracy Letts's Pulitzer Prize-winning stage comedy-drama translates to the big screen starring Meryl Streep, Dermot Mulroney, Julia Roberts and Juliette Lewis.

"The Wolf Of Wall Street," R: Martin Scorsese directs the drama about a wealthy stockbroker's rise and fall. Leonardo DiCaprio stars in the biopic based on the true story of Jordan Belfort.

"Grudge Match," PG-13: Robert De Niro and Sylvester Stallone star as aging boxer rivals. Kim Basinger and Alan Arkin co-star in the comedy.

"Lone Survivor," R: Peter Berg directs Mark Wahlberg, Ben Foster, Erica Bana and Josh Berry in the action drama about four members of a SEAL team who attempt to capture a Taliban leader. It's based on a failed 2005 mission, "Operation Red Wings."

"47 Ronin," PG-13: Keanu Reeves stars as a samurai in the action-fantasy film.

This movie review column is dedicated to Peter O'Toole (1932 - 2013) and Joan Fontaine (1917 - 2013).

Read Paul Willistein's movie reviews at the Lehigh Valley Press web site,; the Times-News web site,; and hear them on "Lehigh Valley Art Salon," 6 - 6:30 p.m. Mondays, WDIY 88.1 FM, and, where they're archived. Email Paul Willistein: You can follow Paul Willistein on Twitter and friend Paul Willistein on facebook.

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