In a year of admittedly very strong films, it’s still a shame “Nebraska” didn’t walk off with a single Oscar at the 2013 Academy Awards. It’s one of the best American films of the last several years and one of the best films about the concept of family ever made.
As much as the film, its director, its writer and stars Bruce Dern and Jane Squibb have earned much-deserved accolades, sadly missing is recognition for Will Forte’s performance. It may be a straight-man performance, but arguably, Forte is the film’s heart-and-soul and what keeps “Nebraska” from being the heartless kick to the Heartland’s gut that some critics have accused it of.
The film’s premise is simple. Elderly Woody Grant (played by Bruce Dern) receives notification in the mail from a magazine subscription company that he may have won $1,000,000. However, Grant believes he’s actually won the million dollars and wants to go to Nebraska to claim his prize. Everyone tries to convince him it’s a scam, but Woody believes otherwise. His wife of several years, Kate (played by Jane Squibb), has written Woody off as a loser and a drunk and constantly berates him for how foolish he is. However, their well-meaning and long-suffering son David (played by Will Forte) decides to take his Dad to Lincoln, Nebraska to learn the truth about his prize, mainly because Woody won’t have it any other way.
What starts out in David’s mind as a chance to bond with a father who has been neglectful turns into a far different experience than he ever imagined. David is an unsuccessful home theater salesman who has just been given the axe by a girlfriend because he can’t commit to marriage. Given the toxicity of his own parents’ union, it’s easy to understand his trepidation over the idea of marriage. When he asks his father whether he ever wanted to have children, Woody’s response shocks him: “I liked to screw, and your mother’s a Catholic, so you figure it out.” They stay with Woody’s family in the town where Woody grew up and the family’s homespun charm turns venal when Woody carelessly tells them about his impending fortune and they start laying claim to past debts both real and imagined.
Despite a lot of funny moments, “Nebraska” is a profoundly sad film. However, it’s also a very moving tribute to Forte’s character David. David’s quest to bring his aging father one last shot at happiness and to bond with a severely flawed person who has done nothing to earn such efforts is heroic. David’s perseverance in giving his father his dignity may seem misguided, but it’s an affirmation of the humanity in even the most screwed-up individuals.
Forte plays a character trying to manage several volatile personalities that are important to him. Because it’s not a particularly showy role, it’s easy to dismiss it in the whirlwind kicked by Dern, Squibb, and Stacy Keach playing Woody’s embittered ex-business partner. When David finally explodes (similar to an earlier explosion by Kate), it is not a careless expression of emotion, but the only logical response to an escalating series of indignities. Despite what many people feel about their families, when someone is threatened, all past hostilities and grudges are quickly laid to rest to defend the slighted party.
“Nebraska” is a tremendously complex film that will stay with you a long time and is a genuine American classic.