Director: Alexander Payne
Runtime: 115 minutes
Like the state from which it derives its title, Nebraska is a pleasant experience that lacks anything worth stopping for on your way through. Director Alexander Payne's follow-up to The Descendants is an amiable, bittersweet family comedy that turns its overwhelming slightness into an advantage. While it may not have attention-grabbing stars or subject matter, Payne's latest is another comfortably executed dramedy, even though it's hardly essential viewing for anyone but Payne's biggest fans.
The opening shots of Nebraska show Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) hobbling along on foot in his hometown of Billings, Montana to the state of Nebraska. He's on his way to claim a (bogus) reward of $1 million, much to the frustration of his sons David (Will Forte) and Ross (Bob Odenkirk), and his wife Kate (June Squibb). Rather than dwell on the reasons for Woody's determination, Bob Nelson's script has David give in to the idea of propping up Woody's fantasy for a few days. This gives the film an early chance to jump to the bulk of its limited story, set among Woody's relatives in his hometown in Nebraska.
And, try as David (and eventually Ross and Kate) may, no one else in the family wants to give up the idea that Woody has suddenly become a millionaire. Like a group of cuddly, wrinkly parasites, the Grant family starts cozying up to Woody in hopes that they can get some of the winnings. Folks outside of the family, like Woody's old business partner Ed (Stacy Keach), are less pleasant about it. David remains uneasy during the entire journey, while Woody nods along, too worn down and generous to say 'no' to anyone.
Even though it's tempting to nag and ask why David never cuts the journey short, Payne and Nelson make the open-ended journey a pleasant one. Though the film was hit with claims of patronizing its mid-Western characters, there are enough little details that give the ensemble enough plausible humanity. Some, like a pair of David's creepy cousins, are broader than others, but Payne's simple direction keeps things from sliding into cheap mockery. The films's vision of its setting is best encapsulated in a lengthy shot of the men in the family sitting, stone faced, as they watch TV and make conversation that would barely pass as small talk.
When Nebraska arrives at scenes like this, it can be enormously entertaining. Despite the tinge of melancholy inherent in the premise, there are any number of laugh out loud scenes, many of which come from Squibb as the feisty, unfiltered Kate. With so much glum small talk and sinister sucking up, Kate's interjections enliven the film and provide Nebraska with its high points.
What keeps Nebraska from being a more memorable addition to Payne's resume is the work from the film's pair of leads. Forte, known for his outrageous Saturday Night Live characters, is effectively understated. There are hints in the performance that he's capable of mining even richer characterization if given stronger material. Dern, meanwhile, is reduced to being distant and occasionally crotchety. In a year with any number of powerful, dynamic male performances, it's puzzling that Dern has gathered such acclaim, even picking up the Best Actor prize at Cannes earlier this year.
Once the film arrives at its conclusion, and all of the emotional secrets are dragged out into the sunlight, you can already feel it evaporating. Woody's determination is so single-minded and lacking in interesting angles or details that he becomes a mere sounding board, rarely able to throw anything back. The role is passive to a fault. Just as Woody sits around while others talk, bicker, and scheme, Dern mostly sits and nods while others act. With such a paper-thin core, it's no wonder that Nebraska doesn't linger on the mind once the credits roll. Whether this or not this ends up being a transitional film for Payne, it's also an unquestionably unmemorable, albeit enjoyable, outing.