The characters in the comedy-dramas of Alexander Payne have a tendency to take to the road: remember Jack Nicholson’s eponymous retiree heading to his daughter’s wedding in About Schmidt and the trip through Santa Ynez Valley undertaken by the booze-guzzling bromancers in Sideways? And they’re at it again in Nebraska, the latest of Payne’s arch American road trips.
This time out the travellers are Woody (Bruce Dern) and David (Will Forte), a father and son who embark on a journey from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska in order to claim the million dollar prize that Woody alleges that he’s won. David doesn’t believe the prize is genuine, but agrees to the trip to appease his father and to spend some 'quality time' with him. Following an incident that finds the duo searching for Woody’s teeth on the railway tracks, the pair end up stopping over in Woody’s old hometown, where many of his relations still reside. And so between revisiting old haunts, reconnecting with old pals, and bickering with family members, there are, sure enough, plentiful opportunities for David to get to know his befuddled, taciturn Pa a bit better.
I have to admit that I’ve never been as fond of Payne’s work as many people seem to be: the director’s brand of snarky humour has often struck me as too calculated and, increasingly, it’s been supplemented by a rather sappy side that I’ve found equally unappealing. Payne’s tone and rhythm usually feel a bit off to me, and the only work of his that I’ve loved unreservedly was the short film that he contributed to Paris, Je T’aime.
Still, I felt kindly disposed towards Nebraska at first. Working from a script by Bob Nelson, Payne presents the early interactions between Woody and David in a way that feels more natural than his movies have tended to do, and there’s some pleasing dry humour to the early sections of the film in which the men first hit the road. Stopping off at Mount Rushmore, for example, the eager David attempts to instill some excitement in his Dad about the monument. The old man’s response? 'It doesn’t look finished to me.'
As the movie progresses, though, it begins to feel more forced, more synthetic and schematic, as other protagonists are introduced. It’s heartening that Payne shows the kind of small-town characters who seldom make it onto the contemporary American screen, but the way he does so leaves something to be desired, I’d argue. The scenes in Woody’s hometown seem to be aiming for wry affection in their presentation of the locals, but Payne’s snide side constantly comes through, not least in David’s interactions with his pair of matching dumb-ass jock cousins who don’t know Korea from Japan and who constantly boast about their ability to drive long distances at record speeds. And what is a viewer meant to make of some of the performances in this section, and the stilted delivery of certain members of the supporting cast? For example, a scene in which David meets one of his father’s old flames is rendered totally unconvincing by some very flat line readings indeed.
The look of the film seems wrong, too. Phedon Papamichael’s black-and-white widescreen images — and, following Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing and Noah Bambauch’s Frances Ha, just what is the current vogue for black-and-white in American 'indie' cinema all about? — are striking, and doubtless convey the 'iconic, archetypal' appearance that Payne has announced that he was after. And yet the images put a drag on the picture: they’re too stately, too over-deliberate, for the brand of sitcom-derived comedy (by turns broad and deadpan) that the director so often resorts to here. Witness, for example, the crudely crowd-pleasing antics of Woody’s wife Kate (June Squibb) who’s given to quipping about the men who wanted to sleep with her, who bears her knickers in a graveyard, and who at one point delivers a rude riposte that inspired some audience members into a hearty round of applause.
What I liked least about Nebraska, though, is the film’s sentimental streak and the cosy way in which Payne and Nelson ultimately soften Woody’s character. Cannes-honoured and possibly Oscar-bound, Bruce Dern gives a very fine performance in the role, but having established Woody as a hard-drinking s.o.b. who made life difficult for his wife and kids, the movie gradually transforms him into a much more benign and pathetic figure: a loser in a 'Prize-winner' baseball cap.
Payne and Nelson accomplish this shift by foul means: namely, by having other characters reveal just how unpleasant they are, and how eager to get their hands on Woody’s dough. Thus, Stacy Keach who brings some life and fresh air into the movie in his initial scenes as Woody’s old buddy and business partner, is reduced to playing the film’s arch-villain — a guy so pantomime-nasty that a late punch thrown at him practically elicited another round of applause. And a final moment of glory that Payne grants Woody also feels fake and unearned. Nebraska has its moments, but for the most part the movie plays out like a Steptoe and Son episode re-scaled as a would-be heartland-of-America epic — and one that boasts less bite and insight than the average half hour in Harold and Albert’s company provided.