A lonely old man walks down a highway in black-and-white in Alexander Payne's latest, Nebraska. He's disheveled and possibly mad, but he looks like he knows where he is and where he's going.
This is Woody Grant (Bruce Dern). When his son, David (Will Forte), finally gets to him, Woody says he was on his way to Nebraska, and no one can stop him from going again. The old man believes he has won a million dollars from a company in Omaha, and he's going to claim it. Whether or not Woody has had a mental break is up for debate among his family, but he convinces David to drive him to Nebraska. David agrees to the road trip not because he believes that the prize is real but because he senses his father needs something to live for, and this will do. David's mom, Kate (June Squibb), and brother, Ross (Bob Odenkirk), are faced with the challenge of having to convince David otherwise as well as Woody. But it's not like there's much keeping David in town. He has a few days he can take off from selling audio and home theater components, and his girlfriend recently dumped him.
The pair wind up for an extended time at Woody's hometown, where he is reunited with his family and old acquaintances. The word about Woody's cash prize gets out, and he becomes a hometown hero for some. It brings out the worst in others.
Payne has made a career out of geographically focused dramatic comedies. Election and About Schmidt tackled the Midwest; Sideways drank in California's Napa Valley; and The Descendants was a Hawaiian excursion. Nebraska takes Payne back to his home turf. The film travels from Montana through South Dakota and down to the titular place. There's a specificity to the upper middle western states that is slightly different from the suburban and urban Midwest of Election and About Schmidt. Payne largely evokes it with the vast scenery: rolling hills dominated by steel-gray clouds, nothingness stretching to the horizon. Remember: Even William Least Heat-Moon, who found something beautiful everywhere else he went, found nothing to commend about this part of the country in Blue Highways.
Many of the pleasures of Nebraska are observational. David's house includes touches such as a jar of aluminum-can tabs, dead plants, and delivery-food magnets. In Nebraska, there are Husker koozies, Eagle Scouts, Methodist churches, and Masonic lodges. Family members who haven't seen each other in years settle back into old routines. The men sit around and watch TV in silence while the women gossip acidly in the kitchen. "Uncle Ray's foot hurts" updates everyone on what Ray has been up to the last few years.
The satire, though, opts for mild and plain and kind of sweet rather than mean-spirited. The script by Bob Nelson generously chooses moments that redeem the protagonists rather than focusing on the small of spirit. Dern is terrific as a grizzled, naive drunk. Forte is quietly moving, and Odenkirk brings a nice alpha edge to the older brother. Squibb steals every scene in the movie.
Nebraska was filmed in B&W; it's lovely and lends a timeless feel to the film, but it's also sly commentary. There are fewer things less classically rendered in black-and-white than a Subaru.
Opens Friday, December 20th, Ridgeway Cinema Grill