It's a decision anyone on a road trip passing through South Dakota to or from Montana has to make for themselves: Do you stop at Mount Rushmore or don't you? It's a 30-minute detour from route I-90, but road trips aren't just about the destination, right?
I made the trip with my mother in 2009 and we decided not to stop. I was impatient. It was mid-August and school was starting in two short weeks. I think I had the idea that Mount Rushmore was basically in my backyard now and we'd have hundreds more chances—but that turned out to be wrong. I've still never been. I bet if we went, though, I would say that it looks smaller in person. Seems like that's what everybody says.
The father and son in director Alexander Payne's latest comedy-drama, Nebraska, have a better sense of time's persistent slipperiness than my mother and I did. They understand that sometimes you have to go out of your way to make memories, so damn it, they make the time to visit the monument. Bruce Dern stars as Woody Grant, whom we first meet as an old man wandering lost down the streets of Billings. Dern has a career spanning decades, but I recognize his face most readily from films like The Burbs and Monster. (He's the guy who rents out the storage space to Eileen.) Woody thinks he's going to walk to Lincoln, Neb., to collect his million-dollar prize in one of those mail-order sweepstakes. His son, David Grant, played by "Saturday Night Live" alum Will Forte, takes pity on him and agrees to drive him to the address on the letter. Woody doesn't trust the mail; he wants to collect the prize money in person.
David indulges his father's whim at the protest of Woody's long-suffering wife Kate (June Squibb). "I never knew the son of a bitch wanted to be a millionaire!" she says. "He should have thought about that before and worked for it!" And they have another son, Ross (Bob Odenkirk), an anchor for the local news in Billings who has no time for pointless road trips.
The film's shot in black and white, which at first seems like an insult to Montana's postcard-worthy landscapes, but in fact it's the opposite. The lack of color lays bare the far-off mountains and tired gas stations of Billings and the tiny towns in between. The present seems like the past and the past seems unreal and out of reach. Plus, David drives a Subaru, so they got that detail right.
But the movie is called Nebraska, not Montana, so leave they must. As it turns out, Woody comes from a tiny town in Nebraska named Hawthorne. It's on the way, so they might as well all meet up together for a family reunion in order to explore old ghosts and probably get to the bottom of what's really motivating Woody's weird exodus. Kate meets up with them in Hawthorne, and soon rumors of Woody's big fake winnings have spread among the townspeople. Friends and family are coming out of the woodwork wanting a piece, and from this we learn a lot about Woody's past and what's made him the grizzled old drinker he is today.
Nebraska has been nominated for Best Picture at this year's Academy Awards, along with acting nominations for Dern and Squibb, Best Director for Payne, Best Original Screenplay for Bob Nelson and a nod for cinematography. This is supposed to be a moving, hilarious portrait of a father-son relationship and maybe also a love song to an aging Midwest. I loved the way it looked, and it's always fun to see Montana in the movies, but overall I think people are seriously overreacting.
Watching this film, I felt the malaise one feels on an actual road trip. Call me a stickler for entertainment, but that's not what a movie should do. I felt like I was being made to endure a beautifully rendered slide show of someone else's dreary family saga. It's a black-and-white movie from a major director with a release date hovering around all the other big players of the year, so it must be good, right? If this movie came out in May, would anyone still be talking about it? As with the sweepstakes, I think most reviewers have been duped.
Nebraska continues at the Carmike 12.