To fully appreciate Alexander Payne's new comedy-drama, "Nebraska," it helps to know something about its 77-year-old star, Bruce Dern. He plays Woody Grant, an aging alcoholic whose mind is slipping. A letter from Mega Sweepstakes Marketing in Lincoln, Neb., has informed him of a million-dollar prize, and Woody is determined to walk there -- from Billings, Mont. -- to collect. His reasoning: "They wouldn't say it if it wasn't true."
This sad, funny, exasperating old man could well translate into Dern's first-ever Oscar. (Dern already won best actor at Cannes and has since been on a press campaign that might tucker out an actor half his age.) What's more, the role of Woody is an anomaly for this lanky, jittery actor, known largely for playing psychos and killers like the one who shot John Wayne in the back in 1972's "The Cowboys." Even Dern's Oscar nomination for 1978's "Coming Home" was for playing an unhinged Vietnam veteran.
As Woody, he looks heartbreakingly helpless, a gray-muzzled stray cared for by his frustrated but loving son, David (Will Forte, quite serviceable despite "MacGruber"). It's David who decides to drive Woody to Nebraska in the hopes of doing some father-son bonding. Fat chance: Woody is a Midwestern man of few words and squashed emotions. David's questions about prehistory ("Why did you marry mom?") are mostly met with unilluminating answers ("She wanted to").
Though written by Bob Nelson, "Nebraska" is classic Payne ("About Schmidt," "Sideways"), and not just because the Omaha-born director once again casts nonprofessional locals in several small roles. "Nebraska" bears Payne's trademark combination of low-key humor, poignancy and an overall feeling of Beckett-esque resignation. Moments of raunchy humor come from the wonderful June Squibb as Woody's foul-mouthed wife, while Stacy Keach adds shades of genuine darkness as Woody's grasping, bullying friend.
"Nebraska" can feel slightly thin, much as Payne's "The Descendants" did: The mood tends to speak louder than the story. Dern, however, says almost nothing and somehow speaks loudest of all.
PLOT An aging man becomes convinced that he is a millionaire.
RATING R (language)
CAST Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb
BOTTOM LINE This wry, raunchy, tender comedy rides almost entirely on Dern, whose funny-sad performance could well translate into his first-ever Oscar.