There’ve been great masses of critical laurels laid at Alexander Payne’s door over the years, some, in our eyes, more earned than others. When it really hits home, the director’s quiet humanism and wry humor can yield perceptive insights, especially into certain trademark areas of expertise: family dynamics, the vanities and follies of aging men, the reluctance to let go of old dreams. But the downside to this kind of blanket approbation is that, because we know what to look for in an Alexander Payne movie, sometimes we might kid ourselves that we find things that aren’t really there. And so, we come trundling to “Nebraska,” already being buzzed about as a major player here in Cannes, and certainly not a bad film in any way, but one that failed to engage us with anything like the kind of witty perceptiveness we found in, for example, “Sideways,” to reference the other two-man road trip-style film of Payne’s. A journey whose destination is clearly signposted from the very beginning, too often we found ourselves staring out of the windows at a blank and featureless landscape; our trip to “Nebraska” got us where we needed to go in the end, but didn’t take the most interesting or diverting route.
Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) is convinced that he’s won a million dollars in what is in fact, as his son David (Will Forte) repeatedly tells him, a marketing exercise for a Nebraska-based publishing company. But following Woody’s refusal to give up on his repeated attempts to walk to Lincoln from Billings, Montana, and against the insistence of his hectoring wife Kate (June Squibb) and older son, a local news anchor, David decides to drive him to Lincoln himself. But if David’s hoping to bond with his father, on the early part of the journey Woody makes that difficult, getting drunk, suffering a nasty gash to his head, losing his teeth, all of which causes them to lose time and eventually to take a detour to stay with some long-unseen relatives in Hawthorne, the town where Woody grew up. Once the townspeople get hold of the idea that Woody’s going to be a millionaire, what should be a simple, brief homecoming becomes more complicated.
In fact, “Nebraska” is not wholly the road movie its log-line suggested, as in large part the meat of the plot and characterization takes place in Hawthorne, where Woody enjoys sudden local hero status, and David discovers new things about his father and how he is perceived by those who knew him way back when. But one of the issues we had with this portion was that the rounding out of Woody’s character and back-story happens largely at the expense of the local citizens, relatives and townspeople — in trying to make us understand Woody, Payne kind of makes us despise almost everyone else, notably the film’s “villain” Ed (the terrific Stacy Keach). There is a troubling air of condescension in the portrayal of a lot of these folks as either venal and grasping, or just plain stupid. While there are some laughs to be had as a result — especially around the unpreprossessing cousins Bart and Cole — they are laughs at, not with, and they leave a slight sour taste. Better are the quieter moments of less judgmental observation, like the roomful of old men who only break their long stretches of TV-bound silence to talk about cars, and the extended gag about the sons stealing back the compressor that their father had stolen from him all those years back.
Of course, the film is largely a two-hander and so really lives or dies on its performances. Dern is great for this role, but again kind of feels almost destined to be overpraised for a performance that doesn’t require a huge amount from him above “curmudgeon.” But there is a tiny moment of almost-pleasure that shows on his face near the end, in contrast to the blank wild-haired stares elsewhere, that’ll make it hard for us to argue with those who will passionately champion his contribution, so fair enough. Forte, for us, was more problematic. With the narrative of these performances practically already set in stone as soon as the cast was announced, it feels churlish to suggest that the casting-against-type of “Saturday Night Live” comedian Will Forte as Dern’s dutiful and slightly hangdoggish son, is anything but a roaring, surprising success. Truth is, especially in the stagier scenes that require him to do the emotional dance around his stoic and unresponsive father, the stretchmarks show a little as he tries to expand to fill the role, and instead comes over as overly rehearsed. The music too, is initially sweet and welcome but as the film wears on the “heartland America” vibe starts to grate in its heavy-handedness — one particular musical motif becomes especially insistent as time goes on, and if we were feeling unkind we could liken its use to having someone in the seat next to you repeat the word “bittersweet” in your ear ad infinitum, in case you weren’t too sure how you should be feeling.
If it’s sounding like we hated the film, we really didn’t, those are simply the elements that didn’t work for us. In general, it’s well-intentioned enough in its father-son dynamic for us to find it an amiable vehicle to hitch our attention to for a couple of hours. The black and white does lend things a melancholic air, though it’s not so dazzling that we can’t imagine it’ll look just fine on the small screen in color too, and the sour-sweet mix, so important to this kind of comedy, errs impressively, if not always convincingly on the sour side, with very few moments of kindness not undercut by something meaner, until we get to the small uplift of the final moments. Really, “Nebraska” is a small-scale quixotic adventure about the importance of dreams, no matter how pie-eyed, in which the outlined flaws could all be forgiven, if it just went somewhere a bit more surprising. As it is, “Nebraska” follows preplanned route map just too faithfully for us to take it fully to our hearts. [B-]