Alexander Payne’s movies walk a fine line between cruel satire and subtle emotions, but in “Nebraska,” it’s particularly hard to discern which is which. The black-and-white road trip dramedy might be his least essential work, but it’s also notably distinct from the rest of it. The first project that the filmmaker didn’t write himself, “Nebraska” lacks the vulgar edge typically at the center of his scenarios. It’s a sad, undeniably thoughtful depiction of midwestern eccentrics regretting the past and growing bored of the present — ideas that Payne regards with gentle humor and pathos but also something of a shrug.
At its core, “Nebraksa” revolves around a pair of downbeat men, David (Will Forte) and his father Woody (Bruce Dern) on an aimless mission to claim a million-dollar prize sweepstakes prize that doesn’t exist. Having received a scam letter in the mail, the disgruntled and possibly senile Woody continually wanders away from his home in Montana under the pretense of claiming his wealth, much to the chagrin of his nagging wife Kate (June Squibb). Growing weary of picking up his father on random street corners, David — a down-on-his-luck electronics salesman — decides to drive his dad to Lincoln, Nebraska while stopping at their relatives’ home along the way. At that point the story basically pauses to reckon with Woody’s underwhelming past, establishing a tame but lightly endearing drama only vaguely twisted by implication: Nobody’s lives hold particular interest in “Nebraska,” and the main thrust of the narrative involves David and Woody more or less accepting that.
Much of the action unfolds in Woody’s old hometown, where his former acquaintances and mean-spirited relatives hit him up for all the debt they claim he has accrued. Eventually, Kate and David’s slightly more put-together brother (Bob Odenkirk) join the duo at the home of Woody’s equally subdued sibling (Rance Howard), where David is repeatedly mocked by his two portly cousins, played by Devin Ratray and Kevin Kunkel with the broad humor of a Todd Phillips movie. One can easily imagine Phillips churning Bob Nelson’s screenplay into a more outrageous and probably sophomoric comedy, but Payne takes it at face value, focusing on a mature, agreeable mood.
Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael’s monochrome images capture the emptiness of a small town Americana that has echoes of “Paper Moon,” while Mark Orton’s rich score elaborates on the elegant world until it grows redundant. The atmosphere, however, never quite synchs with the hopelessness engulfing these characters’ lives. Instead, Payne pities them to a great degree. The same perspective applies to his previous character studies of highly dysfunctional men and women, from Reese Witherspoon’s success-addicted teen in “Election” to Jack Nicholson’s frumpy turn in “About Schmidt.” In “Nebraska,” by comparison, Payne for the first time allows his losers the opportunity to make peace with themselves. In contrast to everything else, it’s a downright commercial venture.
Mocking David for his slow driving and attempting to strong arm Woody into giving the family his make-believe winnings, the cousins point to the darker side of Payne’s tale, particularly the ways that everyone attempts to take advantage of the meek David and Woody for their own personal gain. Only Kate manages to stand up to their aggression, to the point where Squibb virtually steals the movie in a handful of scenes. Dern, ostensibly at the center of the story, mutters his lines in gruff monotone and comes across fairly dry; Forte, meanwhile, mainly just looks astonished to show up in such a straightforward production.
Yet there are glimmers of wicked humor that frequently beckon to come out. Over drinks, David asks his father why he had children in the first place. “I figured if we kept on screwing we’d have a couple of you,” he says. That line alone explains the uneasiness of their relationship, but played for laughs, it lacks the ability to deepen the sentiment. The bittersweet quality of David and Woody’s awkward bonding session continues in several other scenes, including a visit to Woody’s childhood home, but never once do the stakes rise or the feelings cut particularly deep.
Still, the pieces are all there. Like every Payne movie, “Nebraska” involves neurotic characters afraid of their own mortality. The specter of death and lives not worth living hangs over “Nebraska.” It’s a subtle idea that lacks inspiration. A Nebraska native, Payne has evidently made a personal movie about a place and time where nobody goes anywhere but most people make peace with their limitations. With the affably unexceptional “Nebraska,” Payne follows suit.
Criticwire grade: B-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Paramount opens “Nebraska” this Friday in limited release ahead of a nationwide expansion. Reviews have been mixed-to-positive since Cannes, suggesting less of a hit than “The Descendants,” but awards traction for Bruce Dern remains strong; he’s a strong contender for a nomination in the best actor field, while Payne has a shot at best original screenplay.
A version of this review originally ran during the 2013 Cannes Film Festival.