There is no place like home. Or is there? That is the question Alexander Payne, the Omaha, Nebraska-born and raised director of “Citizen Ruth,” “Election,” and “About Schmidt” asks over and over again. After a brief detour in California’s wine country (“Sideways”), Hawaii (“The Descendants”) and even Paris (he directed a segment of the anthology film “Paris Je T’aime”), Payne returns to his home state alongside first-time scriptwriter Bob Nelson for the appropriately titled “Nebraska.”
His feelings for the state and the people who live there are as ambivalent as ever. His latest film is far more somber, the satiric comedy that is his trademark sometimes pushed aside by a sense of loss —of time, of opportunities— and stasis. There are moments when you detect condescension towards these small town characters, but then Payne pulls back to show how complex they are.
Shot in black and white by Phedon Papamichael, “Nebraska” opens with a man walking down a main avenue and then onto a highway outside Billings, Montana, before he is stopped by a police officer. His name is Woody Grant (the reference to Iowa-born painter Grant Wood, the artist behind the iconic painting “American Gothic,” is no coincidence) and he is played by 1970s movie icon Bruce Dern, a man who specialized in playing outcasts, especially those with a couple of screws missing in their heads. Woody is no different: taciturn, alcoholic, he may be suffering from dementia.
Woody is on his way to Lincoln, Nebraska, 800 miles away, to claim the million dollars he believes he won in one of those magazine sweepstakes. Since he can no longer drive, he decides to walk all the way to Lincoln to claim his award. But no matter how much his sons Dave (Will Forte) and Ross (Bob Odenkirk) and his cantankerous wife Kate (June Squibb) try to tell him it’s all a scam, the old man keeps sneaking out of the house.
So, to shut his father up and enjoy some quality time with him (if you can call that enjoyable), Dave and Woody embark on what’s become Payne’s favorite leitmotif: the road trip. A small accident leaves Woody with several stitches on his head; the doctor orders some rest and so Dave decides to stop by Woody’s hometown of Hawthorne, Nebraska where they will be by Kate and Ross, and spend some time with relatives they have not seen for ages.
The town hasn’t changed much since Woody left decades ago. Hawthorne is an old town, literally: a kid photographer who works for the local paper and Dave’s two dim-witted cousins are the only young people we see in the film. Hawthorne is still a place where folks gather at one of the two local taverns to nurse their Old Milwaukees and Buds; who go every night to the local steakhouse to perform karaoke; or sit around a TV set to watch the latest sports match while the women gossip in the kitchen as they bake their cookies and pies. A quiet place, full of decent people, that is not immune to humanity’s worst traits.
Woody can’t seem to remember anything, much less recognize friends and neighbors, except for his nemesis Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach in top form). But when Woody blurts out he won a million bucks, the townfolk begin to show their ugly, self-interested side as family and friends begin to position themselves, all looking for a piece of the action.
“Nebraska” is a sad film, one where Payne seems to be mourning for and being harsh on a way of life that has been slowly fading away. He deliberately undermines the idyllic image we have or rural America, an image fed to us by movies, literature and even art (here’s where that reference to Grant Wood comes into play). But the folks that live in these beautifully shot landscapes are not exactly the salt of the earth. And that’s Payne’s and Nelson’s point precisely. They are human, flawed.
Ultimately, what steers “Nebraska” away from the condescending and contemptuous tone it could easily have taken are the heartfelt, straight-shooting, earnest performances of its cast, especially those Nebraskan actors (most of them non-professional) Payne chose to play the denizens of Hawthorne. Their performances are lifelike because they most probably are acquainted with characters who behave like this.
Dern is magnificent as Woody: his posture, his eyes, his gait, his short, curt, non-nonsense dialogue reveal a man that is as confused as he is wily; a man suddenly confronted with memories he’d much rather keep buried deep inside him. Woody may be as stubborn as a mule but you know he always meant well even if his life didn’t amount to much. It’s one of Dern’s most subtle, endearing performances.
Forte and Squibb are the perfect foil for Dern. Forte brings to his role massive amounts of patience and empathy, of confusion and indignation. His Dave is more of a wife to Woody than Kate is. Squibb’s performance is show-offy and larger than life at first but then she begins to grow on you as she tears apart the hypocrisy of small town life. Her outspoken mama is the ying to Woody’s silent, stoic yang. They were made for each other. She injects energy to a film that is as laconic, gray, and deceitfully serene as the heartland it portrays.