Age does amazing things. Bruce Dern, a plain but punchy character star of the 1970s (Silent Running, The King of Marvin Gardens), looks in Alexander Payne’s Nebraska as if he has emerged from a nuclear explosion. Shock of white hair; shocked eyes grappling with the surprise gift of life’s continuity; and those signature Dern teeth – the work, you’d think, of a Beverly Hills rodent dentist – now recessed behind a grizzled white beard.
Unfortunately Payne’s film, scripted by Bob Nelson, needs a nuclear explosion. It’s a soft-hearted road gig about a Montana paterfamilias whose son (Will Forte) drives him to Lincoln, Nebraska, where the old man hopes to collect the $1m he has won, he thinks, on a scam promotional sweepstake. Son and wife (June Squibb, one of several cast members speaking every line like a Tannoy announcement) try to disabuse him. In vain. Hell hath no mulishness like an old man set on his moolah.
Dern is the best thing by a hundred country miles. Spiky, quirky, sometimes daydreamy, he bestows the illusion of unpredictability on a film which has none. We hardly need an advance plot summary to know that this dad won’t collect the money. But he will collect – will he ever – wisdom, reawakened memories, a strengthened father-son relationship, et cetera.
Think of David Lynch’s The Straight Story and subtract colour and élan. (Nebraska is in black and white and muted tones of gnomic seriocomedy). Think of Payne’s About Schmidt and subtract Jack Nicholson. As “aren’t oldies lovable?” odysseys go, this one doesn’t. It is pushed forward geographically by lines such as “Hey, dad, how about we go see Mount Rushmore?,” dramatically by cameo characters who jump from the roadside with extra carry-cans of plot fuel. Thank heaven for Dern. As the only performer acting from the inside outwards, he suggests there is life before, during and even – see the last, best scene, a virtual Dern solo – after plot death.
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