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A grand road trip through real America

Heartfelt drama and broad comedy meet on the plains

Bruce Dern would pay to look at you for several hours. Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures

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Tinseltown suffered a heavy blow last week with the tragic death of Paul Walker. I'll resist the temptation to call him a "great thespian," a "master of his craft" or any of the other tried and true cants that frequently appear in celebrity eulogies. I'll just point out that in the distant past of 2001, when the advent of the PlayStation 2 finally compelled me to abandon VHS tapes in favor of DVDs, the first two in my collection were both Paul Walker movies: Joy Ride and The Fast and the Furious. He wasn't a great actor, but his performances were consistently entertaining and by all accounts he was a genuinely nice guy. It's a shame that his time ran out so unexpectedly.

Nebraska is the latest from veteran director Alexander Payne (Sideways, About Schmidt). Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) is a poor, elderly septuagenarian, aged beyond his already considerable years thanks to a combination of a hard life and alcoholism. He lives out a quiet, simple existence in Billings, Montana with his wife Kate (June Squibb) and not much left to do with himself except to await the inevitable. The only problem is that Woody never did much with himself. His time is running out, he knows it, and he's getting desperate.

Woody's luck turns, (at least, in Woody's mind), when he gets a notice in the mail that he's the lucky winner of a highly dubious $1 Million Mega Sweepstakes Marketing prize. Finally, at the eleventh hour, Woody believes he'll have the opportunity to make something of himself. There's just one catch: his prize money is in Lincoln, Nebraska. Woody isn't much for driving due to his age and alcoholism, but how hard could it possibly be to cross 900 miles on foot when there's $1 million waiting at the end? Woody's son David (SNL alum Will Forte, playing against type very well here) isn't inclined to let him walk to his certain demise and agrees to drive his elderly father to Nebraska despite being understandably skeptical of the prize money's legitimacy and believing the trip will ultimately end in tears for Woody.

While en route to collect this pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, Woody and David make an unplanned stop in central Nebraska to visit friends and family from Woody's younger years. Far from a happy reunion, a lot of Woody's kinfolk harbor deep-seated grudges against him, and vice versa. Woody owes long-standing debts to many of them, and talk of his prospective million-dollar fortune complicates matters even further.

Nebraska works on many levels. It's darkly comedic, but also fraught with moments of drama, tragedy and tender poignancy. It's a story of a father and son trying to bond much too late in the game. It's a meditation on aging. It's a case study on where a lifetime of missed opportunities, wasted potential and poor choices can lead. It's a story of regret and a man's quest for redemption before his time runs out.

NEBRASKA, now playing, The Grand Cinema, 606 S. Fawcett Ave., Tacoma, $4.50-$9, 253.593.4474

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