Driving Through Flyover Country: Nebraska

11/06/2013 4:00 AM |

Nebraska
Directed by Alexander Payne

Studies suggest that when faced with evidence for and against something they want to believe, people tend to accentuate the positive. In the case of Woody, the mulish oldster played by Bruce Dern in more-funny-than-sad Nebraska, the good news is that he may have already won $1 million in a sweepstakes, and he sets out on foot to Nebraska to collect his non-existent winnings. Woody’s credulity isn’t a straight-up symptom of senility: he just wants to hold onto that precious moment when he opened the envelope and saw his name singled out and celebrated, as if in belated recognition of his life.

Directed by Alexander Payne and written by Bob Nelson, Nebraska lacks the explicit line from Payne’s About Schmidt (“What difference has my life made to anyone?”), partly because the laconic Woody is past that point. But this is also a trip with an echo: Woody’s son David (Will Forte, not using his innocent look as dork punchline) gives in to his stubbornness and acts as chaperone, though none too sure about his own progress in life (overshadowed by his go-getter brother). Not a tale of uplift like Lynch’s forgotten farmer-on-a-mission tale The Straight Story from 1999, it’s queasily underlined that father and son, who end up mired anew in family on the way, are on a fool’s errand—or, to use the contemporary term, an assignment with managed expectations. And Phedon Papamichael’s black-and-white photography, most memorably in the long shadows of a deserted Main Street after a bar visit, breathes with a twilit repose that’s a shade away from plain weary.

As Woody and David reengage with extended family (including a couple of tweedledum cousins who’ve lost their moral compass), Nebraska at once simplifies and deepens its appeal, with Payne’s work here sharp, affectionate, and, comically, his strongest in years. June Squibb (as Woody’s ascerbic wife, vocally past caring about the opinions of others) turns in spirited supporting work, as do Peg Nagy (her competition once upon a time, and David’s window onto an alternate history) and Stacy Keach. David sets out on the trip partly as a lesson—he realizes his father won’t accept no in words—but Payne’s film, in its way as stubborn as Woody, grows into something greater than its one-line premise.

Opens November 15

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