Cast: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Stacy Keach, Bob Odenkirk
Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Actor (Bruce Dern), Best Supporting Actress (June Squibb), Best Director (Alexander Payne), Best Original Screenplay (Bob Nelson), Best Cinematography (Phedon Papamichael)
SUMMARY: Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) has received a letter in the mail, telling him that he has won a $1,000,000 sweepstakes prize that can be claimed in Lincoln, Nebraska. Woody does not have a driver’s license, and when his wife Kate (June Squibb) refuses to take him, he starts walking from his home in Billings, Montana. He is quickly picked up by the police and taken to the station, where he is picked up by his younger son, David (Will Forte). After hearing what his father is up to, and examining the letter, David tries to explain that it is a mail scam, and that Woody has not really won $1 million, but Woody refuses to listen. He tries several more times to take off for Lincoln, but is always brought back to his fed-up and disapproving wife. Kate and the older son, Ross, discuss putting Woody in a retirement home, as he doesn’t seem to be “all there”, but David decides to drive his father to Nebraska to end things. On the way, David decides to stop in Rapid City, South Dakota to see Mount Rushmore. That evening, Woody gets drunk at a local bar and hits his head, opening up a gash that requires stitches. While still in the hospital, Woody realizes that he has lost his dentures somewhere. Although they are able to find the teeth (near the railroad, right where Woody said they were), David believes that his father is no longer capable of making the trip to Lincoln. He decides (over Woody’s objections) to go to Hawthorne, Nebraska, where Woody was born, and spend some time at Woody’s brother’s house before heading home; he also arranges a small family reunion. In Hawthorne, Woody gives David an unofficial tour of the town, pointing out a business he used to own, then heading to the bar. This brings up several sore points between the two — Woody’s alcoholism and lack of parenting — and leads to an argument. They leave and go to another bar, where they find Woody’s former business partner, Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach), who Woody has long blamed for stealing an air compressor. Though David explicitly tells Woody not to mention the money, he does it anyway; soon the whole town believes that Woody has won a million dollars. The next day, Kate gets to Hawthorne. In the afternoon, a kid stops by to take Woody’s picture for the local paper; when David stops by the newspaper office to explain things, he learns that the owner is an old girlfriend of Woody’s. She is able to explain to David that his father was severely impacted by his time in the Korean War, something David did not know.
That night at dinner, Ed Pegram approaches David and brings up some money from long ago that Woody owes him; David dismisses the claim, and Ed threatens to sue. Ed is not the only one to start asking for money: several members of Woody’s own family make less-than-subtle remarks to that effect. This time, it is Kate who comes to Woody’s defense, saying that it is really they who owe Woody. Woody, Kate, Ross (who has come for the reunion) and David then visit Woody’s childhood home; on the way back, David and Ross try to steal back Woody’s air compressor from Ed’s house, only to realize that it is someone else’s house. That evening, David and Woody are in the bar when Ed approaches and again brings up the subject of money, and also reveals that Woody had an affair before David was born. As the two leave the bar, they are jumped by two masked men (obviously David’s cousins), who take the sweepstakes letter. When David tries to get it back, he learns that they lost it; he and Woody eventually find it in the bar, where it is being read aloud by Ed Pegram, much to the amusement of the other patrons. Woody simply takes the letter and leaves, but David punches Ed. Outside the bar, Woody explains that he wanted to buy a new truck (even though he can no longer drive) and air compressor with the money, but that he also wanted to be able to leave something to his sons. David tells him that the trip to Lincoln is off, and Woody collapses. He is taken back to the hospital, but that night gets up and starts walking again. David agrees to finish the trip to Lincoln. However, when they get there, the suspicions are confirmed: Woody didn’t really win a million dollars. Instead, he is given a free hat. Seeing that his father is very upset about this, David goes to a car dealership and trades in his car for an almost-new truck; he also buys a brand new air compressor. He then goes back to Hawthorne, parks on the main street, and lets his father drive the truck through town. At Woody’s request, David hides on the floorboard as Woody passes the townspeople, including a stunned Ed. When they get out of town, David and Woody switch places, and head home.
MY TAKE: This is a bittersweet movie. It does give David and Woody a chance to get to know each other better, but it is obvious that Woody has some problems. It also becomes clear that life, and the people in it, have not been particularly kind to Woody. He attaches an extreme amount of importance to this sweepstakes letter, which virtually everybody else knows to be a hoax: when the letter is stolen, he is despondent until David mentions searching for it. When he finally realizes that he has not won a million dollars, he is slumped over against the window of the car, and sunk into himself. He does start to perk up when David trades the car and buys the air compressor, and when David lets him drive down the street, Woody is sitting up straight and proud — he even makes David hide on the floor. He’s actually a good driver — he checks all his mirrors and adjust the window before he puts the car in gear, and does a great job of cruising down the street. I got the sense that he was trying to say something to the townspeople who had mocked him, both recently and long ago. Bruce Dern was nominated for Best Actor for this role, but June Squibb, as Kate, totally steals the show. She’s rather short and round, and has very little political correctness. She routinely calls Woody names, cusses up a storm (she tells his family to “go f— yourselves”), and tells lots of stories that embarrass David — usually, about how every man in Hawthorne was trying to get in her pants. When they visit the cemetery, she even flashes one of the graves. I found myself laughing every time she came in the scene, even though her treatment of Woody made me a little uncomfortable. June Squibb was also nominated for an Oscar, but lost to Lupita Nyong’o for 12 Years a Slave Having seen that movie (it’s actually the first movie I reviewed for this blog), I can’t argue with the decision, but June Squibb was awesome.
RATING: Bittersweet, with some wickedly funny moments.