Shot in pearly wide-screen black and white, Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska” strikes a retro, melancholic note from the first frame. We first see an old man, Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), sauntering purposefully but none too steadily down a highway on the outskirts of Billings, Mont. No longer permitted to drive, he is hiking his way to Lincoln, Neb., to claim what he believes are his million-dollar winnings from a mail-order sweepstakes.
His son, Dave (Will Forte), a stereo salesman whose girlfriend has just walked out on him, is exasperated with the old man but, unlike Woody’s harridan wife, Kate (June Squibb), he’s also sympathetic. After days of telling Woody that the sweepstakes are a scam, he ends up driving him to Lincoln, if for no other reason than to shut him up. En route, they stop in Hawthorne, Neb., where Woody grew up, and meet with many of his old friends and foes and family. The old homestead, now abandoned, is revisited. When word gets out that Woody has “won” a million dollars, he is treated by all but the most skeptical townspeople as a returning hero.
Payne has always been big on road-trip movies – “Sideways” is the best of them – and “Nebraska,” which was written by fellow Nebraskan Bob Nelson, is the latest in the line. It’s also a father-son bondathon and a wistful, cockeyed tribute to a rural homespun sensibility that, for present-day urbanites at least, can seem as emotionally remote as science fiction.
Payne shows a great deal of affection for these ornery, not always so soft-spoken Midwesterners, but he also demonstrates a fair amount of disaffection, too. In his earlier movies, especially “Citizen Ruth” and, to a lesser extent, “About Schmidt,” I thought he sometimes made fun of his characters at the expense of their humanity. The ridicule was, perhaps, his way of separating himself from them, as if to demonstrate that, though he shared their background, he was no rube.
His recent movies have shucked off that attitude but it’s partially back here: When Woody walks into the home of his Hawthorne relatives, we might be staring into a zoo. His Tweedledee/Tweedledum nephews, in particular, are caricatured in the broadest of ways as stunted, burbly moochers. Payne is too fine an artist to be settling for potshots.
The grizzled Woody, his long white hair as messy as every other part of his life, is played by Bruce Dern without any sops to the audience. It’s a flinty, uncompromising performance, but at times I wish Dern had compromised just a little. Woody never really deepens as a character; he just plays out the same grumpy-angry routine. Most of what we learn about him, at least biographically, comes from others, especially Ed (Stacy Keach), an old Hawthorne nemesis and former business partner, and Kate, who reenters the film halfway through the journey and enlivens the dawdliness.
Dave, who just wants his father to play out his sweepstakes fantasy before it disintegrates, is essentially Woody’s foil. We never learn a whole lot about him either. Payne’s reluctance to go deep with these characters may have something to do with his desire to maintain an even, folksy tone – a kind of heightened drabness.
Even the handsome black-and-white cinematography has its drear side. It evokes not only the setting but, inevitably, old movies about the passing of an era (like “The Last Picture Show”). But this old-movie swoon doesn’t arise naturally from the story.
It’s a filmmaker’s conceit. These filmmakers may come from Nebraska, but, from the looks of things, they don’t want to be spending much time there. Grade: B (Rated R for some language.)