The family's name is Lincoln. They used to operate a funeral home in a small, poor, no-name town in east Texas. The father, A. Lincoln (the "A" is for Albert but no one ever calls him that), would dig the graves; the mother, Lucy Lincoln , would hear the dying's last words and comfort the aggrieved; their child Brazil Lincoln, would do the weeping and the moaning. They had a fairly prosperous business until Lincoln, who always imagined himself in more glamorous circumstances, left his wife and child to seek his fame and fortune out west.
When we enter the film it's the late 1970's. Let's say 1978. Jimmy Carter is president, men of sound reputation wear leisure suits and the world is still relatively innocent. Lincoln, now in his late 40's, has been absent from his family for almost 15 years. He plays the sagging nightclubs of Reno, Nevada, and has made a name for himself doing historical comedy. He has a daily ritual of getting up early in the morning and going to a secluded park where he "meditates," but otherwise, his life is cheesy and a little frayed. He dreams of making a trip to the Mojave desert (but he knows he never will), he drinks and smokes too much, and while his jokes aren't really funny, he does have a bit of a following. His specialty is Abraham Lincoln, and he dresses up as the dead president and tells jokes and invites his audience to shoot at him with cap guns.
Lincoln's manager, a good-egg white guy named Marty, wants him to liven up his act, make it more edgy and vulgar like Richard Pryor. He says with a hotter act he could get Lincoln some classier clubs—they could play the joints in Vegas, maybe even Tahoe. Lincoln has a Chicana girlfriend, Sonja (a.k.a. "Sunny"). She's around his age, works as a cocktail waitress and wants to get married . Lincoln starts talking of going back to east Texas.
Meanwhile back in Texas, Lucy and Brazil are still mourning for money. Brazil is almost 20 years old. Since Lincoln left, they've had to cut back considerably. Lucy always wears black, Brazil only wears black for work. Lucy still hears the dying's last words and comforts the grieving. Brazil still weeps and wails, but, minus their grave digging patriarch, they no longer bury the dead but leave that job to others. One day Lucy "hears" that her Lincoln has died and so she and Brazil pack their essentials into their 1960's model hearse (left over from the days they used to carry and bury) and begin a trip to Reno to find Lincoln's body and give him a proper burial.
They drive toward Reno through a slew of nowhere towns. Lucy does the driving. Brazil, a bit of a misfit, doesn't want to see his dad at all but agrees to come along because Reno is near Death Valley and he's always been dying to see it. The trip isn't a cakewalk, though. They have car trouble and spend all their money getting the car fixed. So they have to earn some money to continue their travels and what better way for them to earn some cash than help with a funeral or two. Dirt poor people welcome their services and think their ancient black hearse very glamorous. The two manage to make it from town to town by doing their mourning bit. Brazil has a sexual escapade along the way. In each new town, they seek out the impoverished deceased. Lucy comforts the distraught like no other, and Brazil is a wailing genius.
Back in Reno, Lincoln is trying out his new material. He's not bad. His crowds are larger, his venues, while still cheesy, are a bit more upscale. He can tell a dirty joke as well as anybody, but his heart isn't in it. His manager Marty is pretty excited with all the new attention and unveils plans for a show in Las Vegas. Lincoln performs his dirty jokes act on a double bill with his old historical comedy. In his free time he hangs out with Sunny or his buddies and drinks. He has a picture of Lucy and Brazil which he looks at occasionally, trying to imagine them older. Sunny doesn't know he's married. The show in Vegas is all set and Lincoln and Sunny drive from one city to the other, with Marty leading the way in another car.
Lucy and Brazil arrive in Reno and Lincoln is nowhere to be found. They stay in town and continue to look.
Lincoln's show in Vegas is not a success. Marty thinks about dropping him. Sunny wants to stay in Vegas. Marty and Lincoln drive back to Reno. They'd planned a stop in the Mojave desert. Lincoln had wanted to "meditate" there but he has drunk himself into a deep sleep and Marty, afraid of snakes, drives home fast and doesn't stop.
When they get back to Reno, Lucy and Brazil meet up with them. Things are really tense because they "heard" he was dead and they wish he were dead. It's not like they wanted to hang out with him or anything, they just wanted to put him in the ground. Lincoln's life is pretty much over anyway. He performs his act and they come to the club to watch. Brazil gets a big kick out of shooting him with a cap gun. Brazil is proud of his dad in spite of himself. They try to act like a family but can't. Brazil tells him that the only reason he came out west was to see Death Valley. And so, the three of them, Lucy, Brazil and Lincoln, decide to go out and see it.
They drive out to Death Valley and Lincoln sits out in the hot sun and dies peacefully. Lucy and Brazil bury him out there and then they drive eastward, back toward home.
The old man walks on his last legs, the young man comes of age, and the woman gets a new lease on life. In Road to Reno, a mother and son traveled out west to bury a dead father who hadn't died yet. What they found was a new lease on their own lives. Now that they've buried Lincoln, Lucy and Brazil can stop mourning and start living.
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