The theme of Nebraska is set in the opening scene, when a cop stops a disoriented hitchhiker named Woody. He asks Woody where he's coming from, to which Woody replies by pointing behind him. He asks Woody where he's going, and Woody points straight ahead.
That's the essence of the difficult and pig-headed Woody (Bruce Dern). He suffers from dementia and doesn't get along with his family, but at least he is moving forward.
Specifically, he is moving toward Nebraska, where the Montana man is convinced a million-dollar sweepstakes prize awaits him. Eventually, he bullies his son, David (Will Forte), into driving him there. David knows the "prize" is the same stupid piece of junk mail everyone gets, but he figures the trip will be a way to get to know his dad better.
Woody and David are great characters, beautifully acted by Dern and Forte, and this rueful comedy is strongest when it focuses on them. As they travel through Plains towns where bars and churches are the only businesses left open, there's a sense of discovery in the movie, both for them and for us.
Not much happens in terms of plot, but we learn a lot when we see stooped Woody suddenly straighten as he walks confidently around his hometown or follow David when he stops at a tiny newspaper and learns surprising tidbits about his father from a bright-eyed newswoman. It's around the time of that scene that we discover this is also a movie about adult men realizing that, eventually, they become their fathers.
Nebraska is also on sure ground as it traces the vanishing of Middle American small towns and the importance of having a dream, even if it's a goofy one.
The movie is less successful in its depiction of Woody's wife (June Squibb) and the relatives he visits, nearly all of whom are cartoonish dolts. I don't quite get why Nebraska has the compassion to ask us to see the souls behind David's immaturity and Woody's stubbornness but thinks there's no point in having sympathy for Woody's shrill wife and moronic nephews.
Luckily, Nebraska remains consistent in its admiration for Woody as he fights to live a bigger life.
Maybe the best illustration of that is a little moment in a restaurant when Woody orders fried chicken but his wife changes the order to healthier, roasted chicken. This is a movie that says, in essence, "You're 80-something years old. Live a little. Get what you want."
R for language. Paramount. 1:55. Kentucky Theatre.