Alexander Payne’s ‘Nebraska’ isn’t just a Midwest yukfest

Bruce Dern (with Will Forte) is unimpressed with Mount Rushmore (off-screen) in "Nebraska." Credit: Paramount Pictures
Bruce Dern (with Will Forte) is unimpressed with Mount Rushmore in “Nebraska.”
Credit: Paramount Pictures

‘Nebraska’
Director: Alexander Payne
Stars: Will Forte, Bruce Dern
Rating: R
4 (out of 5) Globes

In “Nebraska,” a fortysomething stereo equipment salesman, David (Will Forte), goes on a road trip with his cranky old pop Woody (Bruce Dern) to collect what Woody thinks is a million-dollar prize. No such prize exists; Woody has simply received one of those Publisher’s Clearing House letters. Hoping only to bond, David agrees to placate this delusion.

Here’s what doesn’t happen: David doesn’t realize Woody — ignored by his verbally pugilistic wife (June Squib) and busy older son (Bob Odenkirk) — is a paragon of decency in a cruel and indifferent world. Woody is a stubborn, mostly miserable coot who rarely talks, because he honestly has very little to say. His de facto posture is slack-jawed, staring at nothing, his hair a craggy mess. When he opens his mouth it’s usually in withering disapproval, even if he’s talking about Mount Rushmore. (“Doesn’t look done to me.”) At the same time his silence paired with his often irrational actions suggests there’s some crazy faulty wiring in his head.

What definitely happens are jokes about (and if you will, against) Midwesterners. “Nebraska” is the first film the dramedic filmmaker Alexander Payne (“Election,” “Sideways,” “The Descendants”) has made in Middle America since “About Schmidt,” which reveled in horror at a world of mullets, waterbeds and a naked Kathy Bates. For this Payne has been attacked, as though Midwesterners couldn’t withstand being mocked by city folk.

Ignore that he’s an Omaha native, or that his take on so-called Real America is more complex. His stance is more an endeared bemusement, one that finds Nebraskan family reunions — with their segregated genders and stilted guy talk over endless football staring — hilarious, while recognizing some of them can be as cruel as anyone anywhere. Even the film’s baddies, including an old “friend” (Stacy Keach) who bullies Woody for money, get moments of sudden compassion and pathos.

Payne shoots in digital black-and-white cinemascope that turns the Midwest into arid open spaces and buildings that look like husks. If it looks alien and uninviting, it has a melancholic poetry to it, and not just because Payne overuses a too-plaintive score over montages of car travel. “Nebraska” is one of those funny movies that turn emotional, but it slips in moments of unexpected depth. A brief visit to one of Woody’s ex-girlfriends, still smarting from losing to the woman who became his wife, creates an entire universe we only get through implication. As with the characters it presents, “Nebraska” is deeper than it sometimes seems.


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