“Nebraska,” Alexander Payne’s black and white road trip comedy of middle America, has a habit of demeaning and humiliating the simpleton white folks who fill out the ranks of this country. Their mouths are slightly agape, they’re overweight, they lack ambition or much to say as they sit uniform in front of a small television with their cheap beer, and the marquees and sign posts in town feel modest and bland with words like “Sodbuster” and “Bankman” serving as the Midwestern town’s only landmarks.
It’d be easy to say that Payne’s movie feels slight and that these people are too easy of targets, but America as a country is a bit humiliating. That doesn’t mean that the film and the people can’t harbor a sense of kindness and pride that gives this country its character.
“Nebraska” is great Americana. It’s a warm, funny, wholesome film that captures the comical family dynamics of ordinary people. Perhaps this isn’t your family, but we seem to know families like this, and it can be a beautiful sight to see.
Anchoring the whole affair is Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), an aging, worn and senile old man who we meet walking down the highway in a bulky winter coat and with his white hair askew. A cop asks him where he’s going. He points in one direction. He asks where he came from. He points in the other.
His son David (Will Forte) picks him up from the police station and learns he was on his way to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim a $1 million prize. Clearly the prize is a scam to get Woody to subscribe to magazines and he never won anything, but Woody’s heart seems set on getting to Nebraska even if he has to walk. It doesn’t seem to occur to him to ask anyone or take a bus, and that alone suggests his complex senility.
David, dealing with a dead-end relationship and job, decides begrudgingly to drive his father to Nebraska so that Woody can fulfill this fantasy at the tail end of his father’s life. David additionally sees it as an opportunity to get to know his father who never fully treated him well.
But along the way they stop off in Woody’s hometown in Nebraska. The town full of family and familiar faces in his life gets wind that Woody is a fake millionaire and starts pestering him for money as though he were made of it. It’s a goofy premise given these broad Nebraskan characters, and even though Payne milks it for all its worth, the film maintains its modest tones.
There’s a gem of a set piece in which David and his older brother Ross (Bob Odenkirk) steal a compressor out of a man’s barn. The compressor rightfully belonged to Woody after he loaned it to a neighbor decades earlier, and it would be a brilliant moment of mild rebellion for these simple folk… if it were the right barn or compressor.
Payne’s cinematographer Phedon Papamichael (“The Descendants,” “Sideways”) shoots scenes such as this in long takes, wide shots and minimal camera movement, and he brings a quiet beauty to these otherwise drab images in a way only black and white can do.
And yet this is an actor’s film above all. June Squibb as Woody’s wife Kate steals the show with a sharp-tongued, wild card performance. She’s blunt and vulgar and gives her family an earful when they deserve it, which is always, but she sticks up for the family when she needs to and might even make you a sandwich.
Bruce Dern too has found the role of a lifetime. He nails the cantankerous and difficult old man, but what makes Woody so affecting is how effortlessly absent minded and defenseless Dern makes him to be. He’s actually given less dialogue than the rest of the cast, but he makes those words count.
I expect “Nebraska” to be a huge crowd pleaser. It’s about the most likeable, pleasant film of the year even as it lampoons its target audience.
3 ½ stars