Alexander Payne is the compassionate, thinking face of American comedy. With films like 'Sideways' and 'The Descendants', he tells laidback tales of people facing problems or changes in their lives. His new film 'Nebraska' is shot in black and white and takes the name of his home state as its title. It's an intimate road movie about one family, yet it also lingers on the landscapes and fabric of an old-time, dying vision of the American Midwest.
There's a wistful air of time passed and chances lost as Payne tells of a quiet but irascible elderly man, Woody (Bruce Dern), a retired mechanic, taken on an interstate trip to his small, fading Nebraskan hometown by his patient son, David (Will Forte), who sells stereos in the suburbs. Their journey is part of a wild goose chase to collect some non-existent prize money which Woody insists he's owed after receiving a scam letter. His snappy wife, Kate (June Squibb), has long since stopped listening to – but not loving – him. 'I never knew the son of a bitch wanted to be a millionaire,' she barks. The promise of riches sends the heads of some old friends and family into a spin and shows their true colours. But David, and Woody's other son Ross (Bob Odenkirk), do their best to humour a dad who hasn't been much of a father to them.
The film's laughs are as low-key as Payne's reflective but straight-shooting style of storytelling, and there's a fair amount of sadness. There's a last-minute dash for warmth, too, but mostly 'Nebraska' is fairly blunt about family relationships and friendships, while preserving the possibility that neither are necessarily bad for you and never getting too tragic or maudlin. One of the poignant questions that hangs over the film is whether Woody, played with real unshowiness by veteran character actor Dern, is going senile or is depressed, neither of which possibilities are helped by his lingering alcoholism.
What's driving Woody to go on this trip? Does he believe the letter? Or is it a last-minute desire on his part, however deeply buried behind his inexpressive exterior, to squeeze something else out of a not exactly perfect life? 'Nebraska' doesn't suggest any trite answers to any of this. It's also pleasingly free of nostalgia, even if the past hangs heavily over Bob Wilson's well calculated, often moving screenplay, and there's definitely a suggestion that the world has got harder, meaner: 'He just believes stuff that people tell him,' David says of his old dad. It's often funny, too, in a deadpan, gallows-humour sort of way, and more than ever Payne allows the humour to rise up gently from his story rather than burst through it.