By Richard Ades
Director Alexander Payne fills Nebraska with black-and-white images of desolate landscapes and all-but-deserted small towns. Above them, the skies appear bleak, even on the rare occasions when the sun is shining.
The photography is beautiful and evocative, but it’s a mixed blessing. It can’t help reminding film buffs of that devastating portrait of small-town America, 1971’s The Last Picture Show. And Nebraska is hardly The Last Picture Show.
Payne’s very name is another mixed blessing, as it leads us to expect more than we get. He’s the director behind such memorable films as The Descendants and (my personal favorite) Sideways. And Nebraska falls well short of both of these predecessors.
Indeed, it’s a tale that fails to live up to either its photography or its potential.
Bruce Dern plays Woody Grant, a semi-senile old man who thinks he’s won $1 million and is determined to journey from Billings, Mont., to Lincoln, Neb., to collect it. Since he has long since lost his driver’s license, he’s willing to walk there if necessary.
SNL alum Will Forte plays David, one of Woody’s two sons, who tries to explain to him that the “prize” is merely a gimmick to sell magazines. He finally agrees to drive his dad to Lincoln, if only because there seems to be no other way to convince him. Besides, David’s girlfriend has finally tired of their stagnant relationship and moved out, leaving him eager to get away from his suddenly lonely apartment.
Will Woody and David arrive at a better understanding of each other during the long road trip? Will they come to terms with Woody’s lifelong addiction to alcohol and the problems it created for his wife and sons? One expects such issues to be addressed, and to some extent they are, but not nearly as effectively as they might have been. One explanation is that director Payne has uncharacteristically relegated screenwriting chores to someone else—namely TV veteran Bob Nelson.
What are the script’s shortcomings? For starters, it’s not clear that the Grants’ dysfunctional household was all that destructive. Yes, David seems to be drifting a bit, but his brother (Bob Odenkirk) has a family and a modestly promising career as a TV newsman.
The real hindrance to profundity, though, is the script’s devotion to superficial humor and characterizations. Woody’s wife, Kate (June Squibb), is the main culprit, as she quickly turns into a shrewish caricature who doles out malicious insults and TMI revelations with equal abandon.
Later, after Woody and David stop to visit relatives in their Nebraska hometown, male communication is depicted as a ritual revolving around two subjects: cars and sports. A few humorous moments ensue, particularly when David’s cousins (Tim Driscoll and Devin Ratray) razz him about his conservative driving habits, but this is hardly groundbreaking material.
Perhaps the ultimate barrier to meaningful character development is the fact that Woody is so far gone. The former mechanic shuffles around in an age- and alcohol-fueled stupor, seldom giving any indication that he understands what’s going on. Dern’s portrayal is physically convincing and may give the 77-year-old actor a shot at winning a major award (he’s already been nominated for a Golden Globe), but the character has almost zero depth.
As for Forte, he handles the pivotal role of David well, particularly considering his background is in comedy. Also making a good impression is Stacy Keach as a family “friend” with a mean streak and a long-held grudge.
Haunting photography, good acting: Nebraska has most of the makings of a great Alexander Payne film. All it lacks is a great Alexander Payne script.
Nebraska opens today (Dec. 13) at Columbus’s AMC Lennox Town Center 24.
Rating: 2½ stars (out of 5)