Straight from the Midwestern division of the Lives of Quiet Desperation Department, Alexander Payne’s b&w road movie introduces us to his latest failed everyman: Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), a cantankerous old coot determined to cash in a sweepstakes prize. Decades of hard living and creeping senility have left Woody unable to drive a car down the block, much less travel alone from Montana to Nebraska, so it’s up to his estranged youngest son, David (SNL’s Will Forte), to chauffeur Pop on his interstate quest. Faces weathered from life on the plains—or just plain ol’ life—populate the duo’s trip as past grudges and unpaid debts come back to haunt the elderly drunk. Imagine a Robert Frank portfolio reimagined as a familial tragicomedy, and you’re halfway there.
As with much of Payne’s work, you’re never sure whether the director is goading you into pitying his beaten-down characters or feeling affection for them—a tension that’s long produced a bittersweetness often mistaken for outright misanthropy. There’s way too much empathy in Payne’s work to accuse him of treating his creations like bugs wriggling on pins (see Von Trier, Lars), even though, say, the dimwitted, thick-necked cousins that want in on Woody’s "winnings" are straight-up caricatures. If the overall effect of Nebraska’s father-son bonding and attention-must-be-paid pathos doesn’t quite have the zing of the filmmaker’s best work, he’s certainly got an ace in the hole. The praise Dern has earned among Oscar-predix pundits is more than well deserved; while both Forte and costar June Squibb (playing a scene-stealing, trash-talking biddy) deserve kudos, it’s the 77-year-old actor’s valedictory performance that adds brilliance to the film’s bleak Americana.
Follow David Fear on Twitter: @davidlfear