In Nebraska, writer-director Alexander Payne ( The Descendants, Sideways) returns to his home turf for his smallest, most intimate film yet. It is also one of his most moving. Shot by Phedon Papamichael and filled with wide black-and-white vistas of Midwestern flatlands and desolated farms, the movie has a longing melancholy that leavens the humor — it’s a surprisingly sad, gentle comedy.
Beginning with the vintage Paramount logo that opens the picture, Nebraska evokes 1970s-era character studies (Hal Ashby is a particularly strong influence here). Bruce Dern stars as Woody, an aging alcoholic who is hellbent on walking from Billings, Mt., to Lincoln, Neb., to collect a $1 million sweepstakes prize he received in the mail. Everyone tells him the letter is junk, simply a scam to trick people into subscribing to magazines. But Woody is nearing the end of his life with little to show for it other than two estranged sons David (Will Forte) and Ross (Bob Odenkirk) and a furious wife (June Squibb) who resents having put up with his drunken ways their entire marriage. Woody’s mind is also starting to fade: He says he wants to buy a truck with his winnings, and an air compressor. But despite moments of haziness, he will not be deterred from his quest.
So David, newly dumped by his girlfriend of two years, agrees to drive his dad to collect his prize, on the condition that they stop at a small town along the way for a family reunion. Nebraska, which was written by first-timer Bob Nelson, is yet another variation on the kind of road movie that Payne excels at making. We know father and son will get to know each other better during their journey, but how and why that connection happens is surprising. Dern, a veteran actor too often taken for granted, is so good at portraying this shambling, regretful, cantankerous man that his performance is a revelation — you feel like you’re seeing him for the first time. Forte, a former Saturday Night Live cast member best known for his MacGruber skits, uses restraint and subtlety to portray a man having to rethink everything he had always believed about his father, whom he had written off as an unreliable drunk. And Squibb nearly steals the movie as a hilariously cantankerous woman whose constant angry whinings and complaints are a sign of her deep love of her family.
Like many of Payne’s previous films, Nebraska will be accused of being condescending and misanthropic in spots, getting cheap laughs at the expense of cartoonish characters. But even the most broadly drawn protagonists, such as Woody’s two knuckle-dragging nephews, end up playing an important role in the story, which alternates between slow, contemplative character study and madcap humor. Payne remains a deeply humanist filmmaker: He loves people no matter their flaws, and he once again conveys that sympathy through a beautiful, haunting film that initially feels slight but grows large in your memory.