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Film Review: "Nebraska" 

Veteran character actor Bruce Dern plays Woody Grant, an aging, unemployed alcoholic convinced he's won a million dollars in a mail-order sweepstakes in "Nebraska," Alexander Payne's darkly comic fable of dreams unfulfilled. After several attempts to set out on foot from his home in Montana, his exasperated son David (Will Forte, in an understated performance) agrees to drive him to Nebraska, where Woody believes his winnings await him. David indulges his father mainly to shut him up, but also as a means to spend more time with the man before he disappears completely into senility.

Perpetually in a fog, Woody utters few words, but Dern plays him with a hangdog wistfulness that conveys a great deal with a single glance. He's justifiably getting lots of Oscar buzz for his performance, but June Squibb is equally good as his put-upon wife, Kate. She gives shading to a character who at first appears nothing but a nagging shrew, but gradually reveals the love and shrewd fair-mindedness laying below the surface.

I've read accusations of Payne's condescension toward the midwestern culture he depicts, but I never sensed him looking down on these characters. There's a sincerity in first-time screenwriter Bob Nelson's script that dispels any sense of superiority. It's worth noting that Payne was himself born in Omaha -- not that that precludes a vendetta to skewer his own people -- but I felt a definite affection and empathy for the characters. They're each recognizably human, and all yearning for something slightly better for themselves that's too often just beyond their reach.

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