8.44 a.m., 28 degrees Fahrenheit: Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) is picked-up by police walking along a snow-lined freeway in Montana. In the aged American’s pocket is a piece of junk mail that he believes holds the promise of a $1 million prize, if only he can get to Lincoln, Nebraska to pick the cash up.
Alexander Payne’s black and white follow-up to Sideways and The Descendants, which moves from road movie to small-town comedy, might best be viewed as a companion piece to The Last Picture Show. Both deal with small towns that are dying economically and culturally. Where Peter Bogdanovich dealt with teens unable to escape a Texas town, Payne looks at an elderly couple who managed to escape (to Billings, Montana) and are now returning to Hawthorne, Nebraska.
Payne’s home state served as the backdrop to his first three feature films, Citizen Ruth, Election and About Schmidt. Although this is the first time the film-maker has not directed his own script – it is by Bob Nelson – the film has Payne’s signature all over it. Initially it’s Payne’s California-set wine road movie Sideways that this Palme d’Or contender feels closest to. Lovesick David Grant (Will Forte), against the advice of his mother Kate (June Squibb) and TV presenter brother Ross (Bob Odenkirk), decides to take his forgetful old father to Nebraska, so that he will finally comprehend that there are no winnings to be collected. So we have two men on the open road, shots of the American landscape, a visit to Mount Rushmore, and some bickering over alcohol, all set to a winsome score by Tin Hat’s Mark Orton.
Dern’s performance as the forgetful and tired Woody is a contradictory mix of determination and resignation. As David points out, ‘he doesn’t have Alzheimer’s, he’s just a man who believes what people tell him.’ Away from the trademark witty one-liners - a hospital worker comments, ‘$1 million dollars - should just about cover a day in hospital’ – Payne shows a poor, forgotten small town, where the inhabitants have nothing to do but watch television and sniff out money.
The comedy is hit and miss. Occasionally over-egged, film is at its funniest when Squibb is on the screen. She plays Kate as coarse, carefree and incisive. The trouble with Nebraska, and it bubbles under the surface from the start, is that it feels like Payne revisiting familiar territory. It is visually and dramatically very well realised, and will likely get a Best Picture Oscar nomination, yet this feels like a director working within himself.