Alexander Payne has long inhabited the nexus between affectionate ribbing and pointed jabs. Although his killer satirical instincts have been evident since his debut—1996’s blackly hilarious Citizen Ruth—his style has become increasingly generous since, with each successive film through 2011’s The Descendants demonstrating a tricky vulnerability in even the broadest characterizations.
Nebraska, Payne’s return to his Midwest roots, feels like a bit of a throwback, in more ways than the 1970s black-and-white photography. While this low-speed road movie has many virtues—most notably a magnificently bedraggled central performance by Bruce Dern—Payne executes his depiction of Red State flatlanders at a lower degree of difficulty than in the past.
Bob Nelson’s script follows a bleary Montana man named Woody (Dern) stubbornly convinced that he holds the winning ticket to a magazine sweepstakes. As he trudges toward Omaha in hopes of claiming his prize, his wife (June Squibb) and unassuming son (Will Forte) get caught up in the boozy wake.
Payne has always had a way with character actors, and the narrative’s unhurried pace provides ample moments to shine for Forte, Squibb (wonderfully foul-mouthed), Bob Odenkirk and Stacy Keach, whose dead-solid awful karaoke number provides the most caustic guffaw. The problems arise with virtually every other member of Woody’s extended family, depicted as money-grubbing vultures even the Coen brothers might find excessive. The sight of largely nonverbal males connected to their televisions by a virtual IV generates laughs, to be sure—Forte’s two hulking cousins appear to have stopped in directly from a Faulkner barn burning—but of a rather hollow, easy variety.
Then, there’s Dern. Once the most unpredictably twitchy of actors, here Dern dials it way down, generating a befuddled atmosphere that gives Nebraska’s final act an unexpected, hazy grace. Whenever the film threatens to go cartoonishly flat around him, Dern finds ways to cantankerously re-inflate it. An Oscar nomination seems like small potatoes, really.
Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb