‘Nebraska’ filled with funny, bittersweet moments

No spoiler alert necessary here, but I will say that the final 20 minutes or so of Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska” are glorious in a way that might just make you remember why you go to movies. Simple and bittersweet, this film builds to something very nice indeed.

How did we get there? Road trip. A black-and-white character study from a screenplay by former “Almost Live” comedian Bob Nelson, “Nebraska” is arranged around that classic American storytelling form, the car ride. The trip only lasts a few days, but a lot of ground is covered.

Despite the title, we begin in Billings, Montana, where an elderly man named Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) is driving his wife, Kate (June Squibb), and younger son, David (Will Forte), crazy.

He’s convinced of the authenticity of a bogus sweepstakes come-on letter. It tells him that if Woody presents the letter to the company headquarters in Lincoln, Nebraska, he’ll claim a million-dollar prize.

Everyone except Woody understands that this is a scam to get him to buy magazine subscriptions, but David finds himself driving Woody to Nebraska anyway. For a weekend, they pause in Woody’s old home town, where the locals become convinced Woody’s really struck it rich.

This is the heart of the movie: old acquaintances, unresolved feelings, resentful relatives. Payne is a Nebraska native (his somewhat similar “About Schmidt” was also set there), and he’s obviously got a feel for the place.

The characters are ridiculous and winning in varying degrees, and the rituals of TV-football-watching and male one-upmanship are precisely captured. There’s one running joke about how long it took David to drive from Montana that gets funnier with each variation.

The black-and-white photography and Mark Orton’s spare music add to the mood, and so does the lived-in authority of Bruce Dern, whose screen acting career dates to 1960.

The role isn’t showy; Woody is too taciturn and sour for that. But Dern’s body language and refusal to pander for audience affection are just right for this character. The look that crosses his face when David hears about Woody’s past indiscretion is the distillation of decades of an actor’s craft.

More talkative roles go to Bob Odenkirk, as Woody’s older son, and Stacy Keach, in great form as Woody’s old business partner.

Still, it’s fair to say the biggest scene-stealer is June Squibb, a little dynamo whose every utterance gives us a good idea of what it’s like to have been married to Woody all these years. (And when we hear her, we better understand why he is what he is.)

“Nebraska” ends so well, I have to admit it begins awkwardly. The opening 20 minutes feel stilted and dependent on exposition, plus “Saturday Night Live” player Will Forte doesn’t look comfortable playing a straight role yet.

But soon we get on the road, and then — well, the driving is very good indeed.

“Nebraska” (3½ stars)

Alexander Payne’s black-and-white road trip about a frustrated son (Will Forte) driving his cranky father (Bruce Dern) to Lincoln, Nebraska, to claim a sweepstakes ticket that everybody knows is bogus. The movie’s full of funny, absurd character studies, and the extended finale is a glorious, bittersweet ending.

Rated: R for language.

Showing: Guild 45th.

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