Alexander Payne’s superb new movie NEBRASKA is a road trip you need to take.

Will Forte as David and Bruce Dern as Woody in Nebraska

Will Forte as David and Bruce Dern as Woody

Woody thinks he’s won a million dollars. No, scratch that. He knows he’s won a million dollars. That’s the start of NEBRASKA, writer / director Alexander Payne’s beautifully funny and melancholy new film. Woody, played with incredible grouchy style in a Cannes award-winning ‘Best Actor’ performance by Bruce Dern, is slowly driving his family nuts with his ever-growing obsession that he needs to travel from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska and collect his winnings.

His wife Kate, a scene-stealing June Squibb, who memorably commanded the screen for a short time as Jack Nicholson’s wife in Payne’s earlier sublime About Schmidt, is losing all patience with him and so resorts to shrieking insults at Woody in the hope of getting through to him. What’s more, oldest son Ross (a spot-on Bob Odenkirk) doesn’t really show much interest in helping. So it falls to the more sensitive, youngest son David (Saturday Night Live comedian Will Forte in a fantastic, breakthrough dramatic performance) to come up with a solution – he’ll drive his dad to Nebraska and in doing so, will hopefully prove to him that the lottery thing is a scam that will silence Woody for the sake of the family.

Of course going on a road trip with Woody is no picnic and after an unfortunate pit-stop in a hospital, a plan is made is stay over for a few days in Hawthorne, the town Woody was born and brought up in, so that a long overdue visit to relatives can be incorporated. That’s just the start of another saga of troubles for Woody and David, involving a pair of mouthy cousins and more worryingly Ed Pegram, an old business partner of Woody’s, played with smiling malevolence by a brilliant Stacy Keach.

Bruce Dern as Woody with June Squibb as Kate in Nebraska

Dern with June Squibb as Kate

As ever with Payne, he superbly peppers proceedings with both comedy and melancholy and you watch in awe at his ability to switch between them with aplomb. The movie is perhaps closest to About Schmidt in its wistful, soulful tone but with the choice to shoot the story in gorgeous black and white – lovely work from cinematographer Phedon Papamichael – I felt I was watching the kind of film a director makes at the end of his career – a summation of all his skills to create the kind of movie he’ll always be remembered for. But Payne is far from that, which makes this mature movie at this particular stage of his career an all the more astonishing achievement and one of the most delightful surprises in my movie-going year.

David gets to know his father a little better on this road trip. For him, as with many of us, he’s caught up in his own life; time passes with you wondering where it went and the image you have of your parent from childhood (in this case a drunken, uncommunicative father) is what David’s kept hold of when we join him at the start of the film. But is that who Woody really is now? One of the discoveries David (and the audience) makes during the course of their stay in Hawthorne is the kind of man who’s underneath this curmudgeonly exterior – and that drives NEBRASKA towards its surprising and heartfelt conclusion.