Director Alexander Payne is a maker of complex, humanistic journeys: “Election” followed a feisty teenager on her desperate, vengeful campaign to win the high school election, a man goes on a road trip to attend the wedding of his only daughter to a man he doesn’t much care for in “About Schmidt,” “Sideways” sees two men on an alcohol-soaked tour through Santa Barbara County wine country and “The Descendants” follows a family where the wife and mother figure is in a coma and her family must grow without her.
Lately his movies are not so much coming of age journeys, but more so just aging stories. In this way “Nebraska” fits right into the Payne filmic family: when an aging father receives a sweepstakes advertisement and believes he has won a million dollars, his reluctant son mollifies him by taking a father-son trek from Montana to Nebraska to collect the alleged prize money. Filmed in black-and-white to augment to its iconic, rustic feel, “Nebraska” is a Midwest-based piece of no-frills Americana: evenly paced, rough around the edges, sweetly funny and painfully honest.
Bruce Dern plays Woody Grant, the not-all-there father, hunched and wild-haired as he folds and unfolds his “prize” paper. Former “Saturday Night Live” cast member Will Forte tests his dramatic chops as son David, who recognizes his father’s obsession as a cry for something to live for. Their journey is a last-ditch opportunity to spend time together, a reason to get out of a town where David’s career and personal life are in the doldrums and a wild goose chase towards something bigger than themselves: the American dream of being a millionaire.
On their way they are stranded for several days in Woody’s dusty little hometown, where Woody and David quickly learn how even false news of a million dollars can cause extended family and long-lost friends alike to start seeing dollar signs. Woody has become both the town hero and its unfortunate doormat when old business partners and his own siblings step up to demand repayment of long-forgotten (if ever existing) debts. And for David, by exploring the town he finally gets to see glimpses of what his father was like as a young man, the person who sometimes peeks through the white-haired, ornery person beside him.
Though we as an audience know the million dollars isn’t real, we find ourselves rooting for Woody, believing in his once-in-a-lifetime prize and the newfound confidence and respect it affords him. We exhilarate when Woody’s immediate family rallies around him and denounces the plaintive money-seekers, we worry about what happens when he finally arrives in Lincoln, Nebraska to claim a prize that he has hitched so many hopes on. But most of all, we see something of our own families in the slow-rocking, gossip-talking dysfunction, and we are left to ponder our parents’ aging, our own aging and what we will leave for our kids. Payne carefully blends the heartbreaking nature of aging with the humor of humanity and family in the simple, artfully done “Nebraska.”