Bruce Dern warms to his chilly role in Nebraska

When your eyes are old, it's hard to read the fine print. Add boredom, gullibility and desperation to leave some cash to family when you die, and you're ripe for exploitation. In Alexander Payne's endearingly gruff Nebraska, ex-auto mechanic Woody Grant (Bruce Dern, with a wild, white puff of hair) plays a sucker senior citizen who believes he's won the millions a sweepstakes letter teases him with. But our sympathies are with his exasperated sons, David and Ross (Will Forte and Bob Odenkirk), who must gingerly convince their father that he's a fool. Naturally, he thinks they're morons for not immediately offering to drive him from Billings, Montana, to Lincoln, Nebraska, to claim his winning check. To keep Woody from walking alone — not that wife Kate (June Squibb) would mind being a widow — needier David reluctantly chauffeurs him while trying and failing to steer the old alcoholic away from bars. Argues Woody, "Beer ain't drinking." Nebraska sounds like a saccharine road-trip flick, the type that ends in a hug. David wishes it were, but Woody couldn't care less about family bonding. When David asks why he even bothered to marry and spawn two sons, Woody grunts, "I liked to screw, and your mother's a Catholic, so you figure it out." Payne even drains the film of color, shooting Woody's odyssey in unsentimental black and white — the better to show the dirt in the snow and the lines in Dern's face. That Payne trusts us, too, to find the heart in his chilly film feels like a gift as we begin the slog of a holiday season where Hollywood slobberingly begs us to feel.

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