Bruce Dern plays Woody, a stubborn old man from Billings, Montana who actually believes a Publisher's Clearing House-like notice that says he's won a million dollars. He then vows to trek 900 miles to Lincoln, Nebraska, over the protestations of his cranky wife (June Squib) and put-upon sons (Will Forte and Bob Odenkirk), in order to claim his sham prize.
Forte's wimpy character gives in and decides to humor his dad by hauling him off to Nebraska, figuring that this may be their last outing before the doddering Woody falls prey to dementia completely. On the way, they make a stop in a fictional Nebraska small town to visit some extended family members... who buy into Woody's millionaire fantasy because they're all stupid, bored, and greedy. (If that sounds hard to swallow, you probably haven't spent much time in small town America.)
Although Alexander Payne opted to shoot on black and white, and neither worked on the script nor adapted it from a novel (the original screenplay was written by the little-known Bob Nelson), Nebraska still explores a lot of the director's familiar themes. There's his home state, the pessimistic take on family ties that we saw in The Descendants, and the old-man-on-the-road plotline from About Schmidt. But Nebraska is his most minimalist work, its monochrome scenes and deadpan performances reminiscent of Jim Jarmusch's early films.
Dern's much-lauded performance is an unusual thing. Just as Jack Nicholson's decades of devilish charm had us waiting for him to cut loose in About Schmidt - only to be surprised at his commitment to his repressed character - Dern's history of playing one psychopath after another make us wonder, at first, when Woody's nastiness will bubble to the surface. But Woody, irrepressible as he may be, is shown to be without guile. So I for one was at odds with the Bruce Dern that I'm familiar with and the character he plays here. Similarly, the question of how out of it Woody is lingers tantalizingly throughout this film. Is he senile, or merely contemplative? Delusional, or merely trusting? Dern never totally lets us in, and I'm glad he doesn't.
Nebraska is a bit plodding at times, and I think Forte gives a bland performance (he looks a little like Peter Krause, who would have brought more depth to the role), but in the end I found it quietly affecting. And Payne's greatest and perhaps most underrated talent - that of depicting the pettiest villainy imaginable - is on full, juicy display.