If I recall correctly, it wasn’t that long ago that Will Forte was starring in MacGruber, prancing around naked with a stalk of celery sticking out of his butt.

Following in the time-honored tradition of goofball comedians making a serious movie, though, Forte has shaken off his juvenile ways and now stars in Alexander Payne’s latest, Nebraska. And while it’s 77-year-old Bruce Dern who’s getting all the attention as Woody, a loopy alcoholic who thinks he’s won a million-dollar sweepstakes prize, it’s Forte who anchors the film with his true and heartfelt performance as David, Woody’s beleaguered son.

Woody is the naïve recipient of a Publisher’s Clearing House-like promise that he “may already have won” the big money, and he won’t listen to anyone who tries to convince him otherwise; he’s frequently picked up by the police as he tries to walk from his home in Montana to the sweepstakes offices in Nebraska to claim the loot.

Finally, after realizing there’s no stopping his dad, David decides it would be safer to just give the guy a ride. Commence road trip.

Payne has created a nostalgic journey here, rooted in realism but with a bit of a sentimental streak. Chronicling the evolution of Woody and David’s latter-years relationship, Nebraska isn’t a mawkish, gooey film, though; it’s an honest-to-goodness look at how awkward it can be when a pseudo-estranged father and son try to reconnect… especially when lost dentures and un-returned air compressors are involved.

The studio reportedly balked at Payne’s decision to shoot the film in black and white, but it turned out to be one of the more inspired decisions of the director’s career, giving the film a timeless, almost vintage look and also allowing the characters and the story to take center stage, where they belong.

Nebraska also marks the first time that Payne has directed a script he didn’t have a hand in writing, but fear not– first-timer Bob Nelson seems to have channeled him throughout; you’ll be reminded of the repartee in Payne’s brilliant Sideways on more than one occasion.

Dern’s captivating performance as the acerbic Woody is well worth the price of admission, and it’s only augmented by the brilliant, hilarious work of June Squibb as his long-suffering wife Kate. Forte, likewise, is more than able to hold his own alongside these two seasoned vets… with (thankfully) nary a stalk of celery to be found anywhere.

4.5/5 stars