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'Nebraska' Is a Road Trip to Remember

Bruce Dern, Will Forte are a father-son duo in director Alexander Payne's latest family drama

Rating: R     Running Time: 1 hour, 55 minutes

Stars: Bruce Dern, June Squibb, Bob Odenkirk, Will Forte, Stacy Keach

Director: Alexander Payne

As in his earlier — and terrific — films (About Schmidt, Sideways, The Descendants), director Alexander Payne's Nebraska explores quirky individuals facing pivot points in their lives: difficulty, disappointment or complicated ties with family and friends.

Nebraska is a tad more downbeat than his previous offerings, but it showcases Payne's skill at capturing some of the most honest character studies of our time. The director's artful camera work is on display here as well; shot in black-and-white, Nebraska beautifully renders the stubbornness and grit of America's post-recession Midwest.

Bruce Dern and Will Forte star in Nebraska. (Courtesy Merie W. Wallace/Paramount Pictures)

Merie W. Wallace/Paramount Pictures

Will Forte, Bruce Dern and Stacy Keech inhabit Alexander Payne's post-recession "Nebraska."

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Nebraska's protagonist is Woody Grant, a seventy-something patriarch in Billings, Mont. Having hit the bottle too hard for too many years, Woody — played by the extremely talented and underappreciated Bruce Dern — suffers from mild dementia. A certificate he received in the mail has Woody believing he's won a million-dollar sweepstakes prize — and that he must travel to Lincoln, Neb., to claim it.

Woody's long-suffering, tell-it-like-it-is wife, Kate (played by the very likable June Squibb), tells Woody he's crazy. Both of his sons — successful newscaster Ross (Bob Odenkirk of Breaking Bad) and in-a-bit-of-a-slump music store clerk David (the perfectly cast former SNL cast member Will Forte) — try to convince their dad the "prize" is a scam.

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But there's no stopping Woody — even when you take away the keys.

No longer allowed to drive, Woody sets out more than once, on foot, for the address listed on his prize-claim form. Just one problem: It's two states away. David finally agrees to drive his dad to Lincoln, and their father-son road trip becomes a funny and poignant journey of understanding, loyalty and love.

Along the way, Woody and David find themselves in the tiny central Nebraska town where Woody grew up.

We meet Woody's former business partner — scheming Ed Pegram, deftly played by Stacy Keach — and the oddball family of Woody's brother, Albert. Audience members will recognize each of these personality types from their past — especially if Midwestern blood runs through their veins.

We witness the good, the bad and the ugly of humanity: The characters persevere in the face of hardship, hold out hope, and help and exploit one another. As Woody and David — or rather Dern and Forte — interact, we witness the complicated give-and-take that defines the connection between parent and child.

Alexander Payne will be remembered for his ability to portray the slightest nuances of ordinary people. He shows us how a family reunion dinner could take place in silence; how mere acquaintances claim to be best friends with an individual they believe has inherited money; and how a husband and wife who trade barbs as sharp as any switchblade rush to defend each other when an auslander threatens.

Payne gets us. Watching his spot-on portraits is like looking into a mirror when you don't want to — but really should.

Meg Grant is West Coast Editor of AARP The Magazine.