Alexander Payne has become a master of a very specific, borderline nonexistent subgenre: the road movie that doesn’t move. About Schmidt centers on a road trip but spends plenty of time before and after the long drive. Sideways is about a journey through California wine country that hits a wall with unexpected affairs; even The Descendants takes a more homebound look at the traditionally tourist-heavy location of Hawaii. Payne’s new film Nebraska continues this tradition of distraction, recalling Schmidt in particular as an odyssey to Omaha, Nebraska, pulls over for an extended hometown detour.
David Grant (Will Forte) doesn’t much mind the delay; he’s making the trip because he’s out of ideas. His father Woody (Bruce Dern), wobbly with age, is convinced that he’s won a Publisher’s Clearinghouse-style sweepstakes, and if necessary will walk to Omaha to retrieve it. Over the protestations of his mother Kate (June Squibb), David agrees to drive Woody from Montana to Nebraska to claim the winnings he knows aren’t there. During a stopover in Woody’s hometown, David and Woody re-disconnect with a bunch of relatives they don’t know very well, and word starts to spread of Woody’s supposed good fortune. Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach) is particularly interested.
Payne’s earliest movies were empathetic but clear-eyed satires; and after About Schmidt introduced more emotion, Sideways and The Descendants seemed like reactions to the silly charge that Payne derided his characters, held himself above them. Both movies have lightly comic moments, but few of their laughs have much bite. Nebraska, shot in stark black and white, and confronting some harsh realities of aging and fading, seems even more austere at first — until it reveals itself as Payne’s funniest movie in years.
This isn’t due to Forte, best known for many seasons on Saturday Night Live. He turns out to be a strong, understated straight man, as does his fellow sketch comedian Bob Odenkirk, brilliantly cast as David’s older brother. (I never noticed a physical resemblance between the two of them before, but they look just right here, aided by their pitch-perfect familial blend of familiarity and awkwardness.) Dern isn’t playing comedy, either — his Woody is taciturn on his best days, befuddled and belligerent on his worst. The biggest laughs in the movie belong to June Squibb, who shares Woody’s bluntness but not his reluctance to speak. The movie doesn’t say whether her Kate has always been this brash, but there’s a distinct feeling that her give-a-fuck-o-meter has declined steadily with age.
Occasionally the comic shots go a little broad: once in a while, the movie-stealing Squibb gets handed a line that feels designed for a cheap laugh out of a hacky studio comedy with a salty-talking grandma. But these moments pass in a flash, and the movie doesn’t depend on them. Its funniest scene, involving the theft of some farm equipment, doesn’t use wisecracks or even slapstick; just humans behaving understandably, awkwardly, and kind of stupidly, all at once. That humanity drives the movie, with less delicate care than Payne’s last few pictures; the smaller frame allows more wiggle room.
The screenplay plays so much like stripped-down Payne that it’s a surprise to find he’s not the credited author; that would be Bob Nelson, a South Dakota native who gives some potential stereotypes real depth and shading — especially Dern’s Woody. He’s cantankerous and difficult — the proverbial grumpy old man — but Woody also exercises a kind of sad liberation by believing (whether fully by choice or through faltering mental health) that he’s been lucky enough to win a bunch of money. Nebraska never turns his quest into a beautiful dream, nor Woody into a romantic dreamer. As funny as the movie is, its payoffs are perfectly small. Through austerity — black and white shots of sparsely populated Midwest landscapes, and a mess of characters who don’t talk much — Payne has found great freedom.