Filming in monochromatic black and white, Alexander Payne nostalgically returns to his home state of Nebraska to sensitively, subtly convey the melancholy lives of ordinary Midwesterners.
This original debut screenplay by Bob Nelson revolves around grizzled Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), an alcoholic, aging resident of Billings, Mont., who is convinced that he's won a million dollars in a Publisher's Clearing House-like mega-sweepstakes lottery.
Obviously deluded with symptoms of senility, he's stubbornly determined to get to the company's headquarters in Lincoln, Neb., even if he has to walk there.
That's what he tells his younger son, David (Will Forte), an electronics salesman, who picks him up after he's been wandering down the highway. David's older brother, Ross (Bob Odenkirk), a local TV announcer, and their exasperated mother, Kate (June Squibb), want Woody put in a nursing home.
But David, feeling empathy for the frail, confused old man, offers to drive him to Lincoln to pick up his alleged prize. En route, they visit relatives in Hawthorne, Neb., where Woody grew up. Gradually, David learns more about his reticent, inscrutable father -- from his old girlfriend (Angela McEwan) and former business partner (Stacy Keach) -- and realizes how everyone, thinking that ornery Woody's suddenly struck it rich, wants a cut of the windfall.
Beginning with his breakthrough satire "Election" and continuing through "Sideways," "About Schmidt" and "The Descendants," Alexander Payne has established himself as a distinctly idiosyncratic, understated filmmaker. As he delineates his characters' socio-economic travails and emotional hurdles, his road-trip pace is leisurely, focusing on the listless lifestyle of the American middle class.
As the cantankerous old coot, Dern delivers a restrained-yet-convincing, career-crowning performance that's complemented by Forte ("Saturday Night Live","30 Rock"), as his caregiver, and Squibb as the quarrelsome matriarch who's engrossed with scandalous small-town gossip.
Photographed by Phedon Papamichael, the austere, elegiac imagery evokes Ansel Adams, Diane Arbus, Edward Hopper and Dorothea Lange, as do the disgruntled characters and sparse dialogue.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, "Nebraska" is a nuanced, endearing 8, exuding whimsical humor and poignant, homespun humanity.