Alexander Payne's Nebraska might just be the perfect film for Thanksgiving. I'm not suggesting you take the whole family to the cineplex to see it this holiday weekend.
Payne's dark, wry humor isn't for everyone. It might not even be for most people. I don't know. What I am suggesting is that it helps to explain why we'll tolerate traveling great distances to be with our families on a day like Thanksgiving -- why we'll make our way through interminable, snaking security lines at the airport or sit in dreadful traffic on an interstate.
It's because your family will love you almost unconditionally, which is really another way of saying that they will forgive you for the most stuff (like an inordinate amount more!) even if they might be more than a little annoying about it in the process.
Nebraska, which was shot in black and white, opens in Billings, Mont. with an unkempt Bruce Dern lumbering down the side of the highway in the middle of the winter. Dern's character, Woody Grant, is setting off for Lincoln, Neb. to collect a million-dollar prize from a Publishers Clearing House-type company. He's walking because he can't drive anymore. He isn't going to get very far, of course, and even if he did there's disappointment waiting for him. It's up for debate whether or not Woody understands that the piece of direct mail he received promising him $1 million is a scam.
I mention that because it seems possible that he's walking down the highway simply to take back some measure of control over his life. His children are grown. He's retired. He can't drive. He can't even drink, vague references to past troubles with alcohol the reason why.
His wife Kate, played by June Squibb, is a shrew. Woody might just want to get away, and after a few abortive attempts, his son David, played by Will Forte, obliges him, agreeing to drive him to Lincoln on a trip he knows is doomed.
David's gesture is what I mean about family. It is utterly selfless -- the kind of thing you only do out of unconditional love, a fact driven home by Woody's emotional distance (apparently throughout his life) and his seeming lack of gratitude. Their road trip drives home the rest of it. It features a lengthy stop in Hawthorne, Neb. -- Woody's hometown -- where an uncomfortable reunion with the Grants' extended family and friends awaits.
For David, the layover is a rare opportunity to dig in to family history, his quirky relatives and his father's old friends shedding light on a life his father seems so reluctant to share. Everyone wants a piece of Woody, the myth that he is about to be a millionaire a chance for everyone in town to settle old debts. Paradoxically, Woody seems to think everyone in town owes him.
The truth doesn't seem to matter to David or his older brother Ross, played by Bob Odenkirk, who eventually ends up tagging along. This is a chance to connect with their aging father in a way they perhaps have never been able to and they might not be able to again, senility or death lurking in the background.
It's tempting to view this as Payne's love letter to Middle America -- the setting, the sprawling and stunning shots of Big Sky country and the warm noir comedy standing as evidence of that fact.
I'm not willing to go that far, and you don't have to either to appreciate Nebraska, one of the best films of 2013.