After making side trips to California’s Central Coast and Hawaii (for “Sideways” and “The Descendants,” respectively), Alexander Payne returns to his home state of Nebraska for his sixth directorial feature, a wistful ode to small-town Midwestern life and the quixotic dreams of stubborn old men. Sporting a career-crowning performance by Bruce Dern and a thoroughly impressive dramatic turn by “SNL”/“30 Rock” alum Will Forte, Payne’s first film based on another writer’s original screenplay (by debut feature scribe Bob Nelson) nevertheless fits nicely alongside his other low-concept, finely etched studies of flawed characters stuck in life’s well-worn grooves. Black-and-white lensing and lack of a Clooney-sized star portend less than “Descendants”-sized business, but critical hosannas and awards buzz should mean solid prestige success for this November Paramount release.
Just as “The Last Picture Show” was a movie made in the 1970s about the end of ’50s-era innocence, “Nebraska” feels, despite its present-day setting, like a eulogy for a bygone America (and American cinema), from the casting of New Hollywood fixtures Dern and Stacy Keach to its many windswept vistas of a vital agro-industrial heartland outsourced into irrelevance. First seen trudging alone along a busy stretch of Montana highway, Dern’s Woody Grant is a man who, like his surroundings, seems to have outlived his usefulness, an ornery alcoholic whose bouts of confusion have put a strain on his marriage to Kate (“About Schmidt’s” June Squibb) and caused sons David (Forte) and Ross (Bob Odenkirk) to worry that he might be losing his mind. Offering further evidence to support this claim, Woody has become convinced he’s won $1 million in a Publisher’s Clearing House-like sweepstakes — a prize he insists on collecting in person at the company’s HQ in Lincoln, Neb.
Though more levelheaded parties insist that the money is bogus, Woody cannot be deterred. Asked what he’ll do with his “winnings,” he announces his intention to buy a new truck — even though he can no longer drive — and a new air compressor (to replace one he loaned to a friend 40 years ago). But like the children’s playground commissioned by the dying bureaucrat in Kurosawa’s “Ikiru,” or the interstate tractor journey undertaken by the Iowa farmer of David Lynch’s “The Straight Story,” Woody’s quest is really a last, valedictory gesture designed to give meaning to a life. So David reluctantly agrees to take Dad on the road, as much out of pity as to escape his own broken-down situation, working a dead-end retail job and recently dumped by his live-in girlfriend.
What follows is, like many of Payne’s films, a road movie of sorts, winding its way through Wyoming and South Dakota, slate-colored skies hanging over pastureland and lonely blacktop, last-stop diners standing on the edge of nowhere. The widescreen monochrome imagery, shot by Payne’s longtime d.p. Phedon Papamichael, is at once ravishing and melancholy, evoking both Robert Surtees’ “Picture Show” lensing and a host of iconic American still photography (Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, et al.) without calling undue attention to itself.
Eventually, father and son make a pit stop in Woody’s hometown of Hawthorne (actually, Norfolk, Neb.), where it doesn’t take long for the incipient millionaire to become headline news, like the ersatz war hero (also named Woody) at the center of Preston Sturges’ “Hail the Conquering Hero.” Nor does Woody seem to mind the attention, even as it brings all manner of moocher out of the woodwork, including more than a few family members and a former business partner (the coy, flinty Keach) with an old score to settle. Everyone, it seems, wants — or perhaps needs — to believe in Woody’s dream as much as he does.
Throughout, Payne gently infuses the film’s comic tone with strains of longing and regret, always careful to avoid the maudlin or cheaply sentimental. (A couple of nincompoop nephews, played by Tim Driscoll and Devin Ratray, rep the pic’s only real concession to slapstick.) In a series of lovely, understated scenes, David finds himself learning secondhand about the taciturn father he has never really known, meeting an ex-flame (Angela McEwan) who competed with his mother for Woody’s affections, hearing rumors of a possible extramarital affair, gleaning details about Woody’s service in the Korean War. Finally, rejoined by Kate and Ross for the final leg of the journey, the entire family visits the farmhouse where Woody grew up, now a decrepit mausoleum of farm-belt prosperity. The closer the characters get to Lincoln, the more they appear to be receding into the past, culminating in one magnificent sequence that equates a drive down a small main street with the span of an entire life lived.
Dern is simply marvelous in a role the director reportedly first offered to Gene Hackman, but which is all the richer for being played by someone who was never as big of a star. Looking suitably disheveled and sometimes dazed, he conveys the full measure of a man who has fallen short of his own expectations, resisting the temptation to overplay, letting his wonderfully weathered face course with subtle shades of sorrow, self-loathing and indignation. Given the less innately attention-getting role (a la Tom Cruise in “Rain Man”), Forte does similarly nuanced work, his scenes with Dern resonating with the major and minor grievances that lie unresolved between parents and children. Had Payne not already used it, “The Descendants” would have been an equally apt title here, so acute is the film’s sense of the virtues and vices passed down from one generation to the next.
Keach and Squibb (bumped off early in “About Schmidt,” getting to go the full distance here) also stand out in a resolutely un-starry cast, full of convincingly ordinary, plainspoken Midwesterners. In addition to Papamichael’s camerawork, the plaintive guitar-and-fiddle score by Mark Orton is another craft standout.