It was just a matter of time before Alexander Payne made a movie called “Nebraska.”
The Oscar-winning Omaha native has become the state’s cinematic emissary, frequently setting (and shooting) films such as “Election” and “About Schmidt” in Cornhusker territory.
Even though it begins in Montana, Payne’s latest represents his most Nebraska-y movie yet. In the mind of his protagonist, Woody Grant, the state signifies the idealized dream. The Mecca of the Midwest. Payne’s road movie emphasizes sincerity more than thrills. But its stark beauty and earnest characters provide a memorable excursion.
We first meet Woody (a remarkably subtle Bruce Dern) as he’s hiking along the side of a highway. The 70-plus retiree is cantankerous and deluded. He’s a millionaire, or so he has been told in a letter from a magazine subscription service promising he “may already be a winner.” No longer able to drive, he’s determined to get to Lincoln, Neb., for the awaiting jackpot.
This does not sit well with his badgering wife (June Squibb).
“You know what I’d do with a million dollars? I’d put you in a home,” she says.
His youngest son, David (the well-cast “SNL” veteran Will Forte), sees things differently.
“The guy doesn’t need a nursing home. He needs something to live for,” he says.
So does David, it turns out. After being dumped by his not pretty, not thin girlfriend (Missy Doty), the sad-sack home stereo salesman decides to let his dad indulge in this fantasy by driving him to Lincoln. A little bonding couldn’t hurt, right?
Shot in crisp black and white, which accentuates the bleakness of the small-town landscapes, “Nebraska” furnishes the canvas for Dern’s role of a lifetime. Having portrayed aggressive lunatics and opportunists since the 1960s, the 77-year-old best actor winner at Cannes triumphs with what may be his most internal performance.
Woody offers a mass of contradictions as unruly as the white hair bursting from his head and nose. Korean War hero? One-time ladies’ man? Hard to pin down, primarily because he never reveals himself to anybody, especially his children.
Woody’s past comes more into focus when the men stop by their hometown of Hawthorne, Neb. An old business partner (Stacy Keach) and various resident kin take Woody’s millionaire claim at face value. And their predatory greed begins to usurp their stoic politeness.
Payne seems conflicted when dealing with the locals, eyeing them with a mix of fondness and condescension. There is no funnier or more miserable and telling scene than when the male Grant relatives watch a football game. We see them from the vantage point of the TV set, almost catatonic and with nothing to say. Their short bursts of conversation reflect that anything outside the realm of cars, weather or sports might as well be a foreign language.
It may play like “Hee Haw”-style comedy for urban audiences, but those with rural Midwest roots will find it excruciatingly familiar.
The director relinquishes screenplay duties to rookie Bob Nelson, whose writing doesn’t quite have Payne’s command of dialogue (which earned him Academy Awards for “Sideways” and “The Descendants”). Nelson has a penchant for spelling things out rather than letting the audience arrive at evident conclusions. (“You’re just like your father: stubborn as a mule,” David’s mom tells him. Duh.)
For a while, the movie seems to be wandering as aimlessly as Woody on the highway. But the finale takes the characters to new places and supplies satisfying (and often humorous) closure.
It’s probably not the conclusion Woody predicted. Instead, “Nebraska” suggests that the American Dream hasn’t gone bankrupt so much as been downsized.
(At the Glenwood Arts.)
Rated R for some language.