The film stars Oscar nominee Bruce Dern as a Montana curmudgeon who gets one of those “you’ve won a million dollars if you just buy some magazines” come-ons in the mail. In his deep desire for something special to happen in his life, he believes it. The film opens as Woody Grant (Dern) makes yet another breakout from the home he shares with his exasperated wife (Dern’s brilliant fellow nominee June Squibb) and attempts to walk the 900 or so miles between Billings, Montana and Lincoln, Nebraska – where the letter-generating marketing company is headquartered – to claim his prize.
Enter Dern’s youngest son David, played by a refreshing Will Forte (Saturday Night Live, MacGruber), who beautifully balances frustration and familial love when he agrees to take his dad on the obviously fruitless quest to Lincoln. The dynamic between Dern and Forte is magic with both performers (assisted by director Payne) bringing out the best in each other, depicting a convincing parent/child dynamic with all the warmth, wit, frustration, and heart that entails.
(As an aside, I just heard, for the first time, Harry Chapin’s heartbreaking song “Mr. Tanner” courtesy of darling Laura Benanti’s equally delightful At 54 Below live album. I kept thinking about this song while watching the movie – similar joke, slightly different punchline, but equally affecting. Watch Benanti’s performance here.)
The road trip has its complications, generated in part by Woody’s alcoholism and possible dementia. Woody and David end up making a memorable stop in the father’s hometown of Hawthorne after Woody takes a fall and bangs up his noggin. Despite his son’s advice to the contrary, Woody tells a group of former drinking buddies about his newfound “winnings,” and that spark sets off a slow-burning comic powder keg of jealousy, greed, pride, resentment, and miscommunication among Woody’s family and friends.
Payne absolutely nails the small-town American vibe of suspicious desperation, envious gossip, and corrosive pride, and he does it without once condescending to his subject matter or judging the characters in play. The cast is perfection, from the aforementioned Dern, Forte, and Squibb to Bob Odenkirk as oldest son Ross and Stacy Keach as country-fried thug/bully Ed Pegram. I think any of us who grew up in small towns know that last guy – Keach perfectly personifies the overbearing charmer who has his greasy thumb on every citizen’s every move.
If Dern and Squibb, Payne and the movie don’t walk off with armloads of Oscars, I will be heartbroken. And Forte was robbed by not being nominated – he is the glue holding the film together.
Payne has populated the rest of the town and Woody’s extended family with a spectacular assortment of unknown performers (at least unknown to this viewer). Every one of them seems like they just walked out of the general store in AnyTown, USA and onto this movie set. The brothers, cousins, sisters-in-law in the film especially have it down: that stultifyingly overcast atmosphere created by family members who haven’t seen each other in years, with their probing questions, insulting assumptions, and tedious conversations about cars and mileage while watching Sunday afternoon football on TV. (Particularly observe Forte whose expressions in those scenes are priceless, fully leveraging his improv comedy training without breaking character once.)
Payne is not making fun of this place or its inhabitants, but he is putting this microcosm on display, warts and all, in a near-allegorical illustration of how life catches up with everyone, how we all get older, and how disappointment is a toxin that saps the soul. And somehow he gets that all done with a light touch, warm-hearted humor, and one darn poignant moment after another. When Forte and Dern arrive at the marketing joint in Lincoln, Forte tells the bemused woman who works there, “He [Woody] believes everything that people tell him.” She replies, “Oh, that’s too bad.”
And if you aren’t chuckling knowingly at Forte’s karaoke dinner with his loving/combative/crazy/adorable parents or weeping some sweet, salty tears at the film’s final moments, then you are made of granite!
Go see this movie. Now.