Woody Grant’s sure he’s won a million dollars. His family knows he hasn’t. Nebraska essentially never strays far from that empty ticket. Even the obligatory road trip, complete with reluctant family reunions, rarely wavers from Woody’s need to claim that prize at last.
But despite the sense of forward motion, Nebraska revels in stagnation. People are immutable; relationships fixed points. (Evocative—and honest—is the shot of long-estranged family members hypnotized by TV, having exhausted their hellos and left with nothing else to say.) Director Alexander Payne, who’s lingered on suburbia’s petty purgatories before in Election, opted to film in black and white, framing this world as quietly hopeless, its landscapes often expansive but never quite alive.
That Nebraska even registers as a comedy under these expectations is a credit to its leads. Bruce Dern has made a career of unsympathetically-insightful performances and won Best Actor at Cannes for his portrayal of Woody, an aging alcoholic driven to reach Nebraska but otherwise half-absent from life, infuriating and pitiable by turns. Will Forte’s understated David faces this fool’s errand more kindly than his dad deserves, giving heart to stubborn hopes that might otherwise feel cruel. Woody dreams of air compressors; David builds the journey.
Their dynamic buoys the film’s slower moments, but occasionally gets bogged down in satire that swings at easy targets. With the imaginary million-dollar payday as the crux of all their relationships and revelations, the supporting cast—with the exception of June Squibb as Woody’s sexually-nostalgic wife and Angela McEwan, the “girl who got away”—can come across like a stock collection of small-town dupes, tyrants and down-and-outs.
Still, Nebraska can come close to home and even manages some earnest moments; the rapport of its leads keeps the movie from sinking under its weighty premise. While this film may not be Payne’s sharpest, it’s a road trip that nearly makes it where it’s going.