David Grant (Will Forte) and his father Woody (Bruce Dern) are combing an area of rail tracks for Woody’s missing teeth. He thinks he might have lost them there while drunk the night before – he gets drunk a lot, though he’s loathe to admit he has a problem. David finds some teeth and takes them over to his father, who categorically insists they’re not his. David sighs and starts to wander off. “Of course they’re my teeth,” Woody says, in the closest his voice comes to a laugh, and snatches them back, sliding them back into his mouth.
Moments of such levity and superiority for Woody are rare in Nebraska, a film in which he’s repeatedly forced to confront his age and regret. He’s convinced he’s won $1 million in a publisher’s sweepstake, and, as the film opens, is trudging down the side of a highway in the direction of Lincoln, Nebraska – a cool 850 miles away. His cantankerous wife Kate (June Squibb) is fed up with his flight of fancy, but David tries to break the reality of the situation to his father more gently – to the end that he agrees to drive his father to the office in Lincoln he needs to deliver the letter to. And so, Alexander Payne takes us on another dysfunctional road trip, cast in the same deadpan, caustic mode as About Schmidt and Sideways.
Nebraska sees Payne return to his home state for the first time since About Schmidt, and it’s not just the painterly black-and-white photography that gives his new feature the wax of nostalgia. The large, empty open streets of Woody’s hometown Hawthorne immediately recall the gentle, downbeat pessimism of The Last Picture Show and Paper Moon (alluded to in the vintage Paramount logo that opens the film). It’s an America that time forgot, and a reminder of how much of the nation still exists in modes long abandoned by the city dwellers who dominate the media. As standard with Payne films – though he unusually doesn’t have a writing credit here, instead working from a script by Bob Nelson – the film is adorned with caricatured supporting characters, from the vast family Woody left behind to the old neighbours who immediately anoint the ‘millionaire’ a local celebrity.
The colour of these characters – and we’ll include Kate, played by Squibb with a sass that thankfully alleviates in the family’s more private moments – inevitably means that both Dern and Forte play their lead roles in a much more subdued manner, the contrast in itself the foundation of many a Payne film. Their dynamic is a disappointingly generic one, with the overanalytical worrywart David trying to bring out the honesty and acceptance in his reserved, lackadaisical father. Bob Odenkirk adds a nice energy as David’s brother Ross, and the sequences of the family together paint a warmly melancholic portrait.
But Nelson is too interesting in the obviously greedy reactions the idea of money provokes in the townspeople, rather than really digging into the wells of warmth and pain in the family unit. There’s clearly too much attraction in the easy, condescending laughter caused by the excessively slow, dry ‘conversation’ Woody’s collection of brothers have about old cars, or the prolonged awkwardness of former colleague Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach) applauding Woody in a restaurant. While the pastoral, evocative nostalgia gives the film’s quieter moments an appealing gentleness, the character interactions are just too cold and calculated to leave Nebraska much to really transmit to its audience.