In his films, Alexander Payne has shown a strong predilection for men somewhere north of their prime, still adrift and looking for grounding. The roots of which took hold with About Schmidt (2002), got whacky and whiney with Sideways (2004), and then moved out onto the island of Hawaii with a more dour tone in The Descendants (2011). Payne's latest, Nebraska, may be the ultimate in mature male malfunction and, in a sweet elegiacal way, ties back to Schmidt as its protagonist, Woody Grant, played Bruce Dern now nearing 80, has a dry, fly-away comb-over reminiscent of Jack Nicholson's hair-challenged Schmidt. And in both films, those men's wives were played by the same actress, June Squibb, who practically upends and nearly steals Nebraska as it sails into the third act.
The setup's fairly rudimentary with the aging Woody insistent on getting from his home in Billings, Mont. to the titular state because he's received a note informing him he's won a million dollars — but thanks to the Publisher's Clearing House, who hasn't? Common sense usually leads recipients to throw those letters away, but not Woody. Frail and vacant, he also seems a bit around the bend faculty-wise. Whether it's depression, too much sauce over the years, or (and the film never floats it as a possibility, though it would have gone the furthest in selling the rhyme behind Woody's inept quest) dementia, we never really know. We just know that Woody's unsettled and unwavering in his Husker state mission.
And, despite some ardent familial persuasion, he won't call it in or mail it in, it's got to be in person and nothing will change his mind. He also can't drive, which creates a short-term dilemma, until his 40-year-old son, David (former Saturday Night Live cast member Will Forte) stuck in a dead-end job at a Best Buy knock-off and recently dumped by his girlfriend, agrees to take on the road trip duties. David sees the trip as an opportunity to stake out his claim as well as a chance to give his dad a sense of closure.
It's also during the brouhaha preceding their departure, that we learn what we need to about Woody and his shortcomings as perceived by his family — of course with him within earshot but acting as if he weren't there. The gist of these familial failures being that Woody was never a present or good family man and drank too much (and still does).
The road provides a bit of respite, even calm, with father and son bonding moments within reach — until a bar brawl derails them. Against Woody's wishes, they make a side excursion to Woody's old hometown (the fictitious township of Hawthorne, Neb.), where the streets have a depressed 1950s sheen, and Woody's tangential kin are little more than couch potato rubes. Adding to the none-too-friendly homecoming, Stacy Keach slithers in as Woody's sleazy old auto shop partner and news of Woody's winning becomes front page fodder. The steady simmer brings unhappy revelations into focus, and as is expected, the rest of Woody's Montana clan rolls in and the notorious prize letter garners epic interest.
The film, written by Bob Nelson, obviously holds personal, if not autobiographical, appeal for Payne, who grew up in Omaha (allegedly Payne had been trying to get Nebraska done for much of the past decade). His choice to shoot the un-nostalgic going home in muted black and white is a bold one that starkly captures the grim graininess of the struggling Midwest while reflecting Woody's wayward cognizance and dimming light.
At the fore, Dern's gaunt frame holds up the film even though the role is fairly two-note. More is asked of Forte in the thankless bit of being the rational son caught up in a nonsensical senior moment, while his former SNL compatriot, Bob Odenkirk, fills out the juicier part of the cantankerous older brother and aspiring news anchor. He's from the Ron Burgundy school of telejournalism, sans the humor.
What Dern, Forte, and Payne have managed is a quiet accomplishment. The lot have made an American asshole sympathetic. Part of that's done by surrounding Woody with even deeper steeped miscreants (Hawthorne teems with them), but the real heart to Nebraska is David's beholding sense of family obligation and the universal conundrums that confront individuals struggling with aging parents. He's the real hero of the film, the one who, in his wishy-washy way, puts himself out there for others. Whether it's Billings, Hawthorne, or Charleston, it's always nice to know someone's got your back.