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Alexander Payne explores the bittersweet Midwest spirit in ‘Nebraska’

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Family time: From left, Bruce Dern, June Squibb and Will Forte in Nebraska.
Mike D'Angelo

Four stars

Nebraska Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb. Directed by Alexander Payne. Rated R. Opens Friday.

Shot in stark black and white, Nebraska opens with a shot of Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) trudging along the side of a highway, looking like a homeless man on his way to nowhere in particular. In fact, Woody is on his way to Lincoln, Nebraska, to collect a million-dollar sweepstakes prize—the same read-the-fine-print advertising ploy received by every household in the country. Picked up by the cops, he just sets out again on foot, being unable to drive; neither his wife (June Squibb) nor his adult son, David (Will Forte), can convince him that he hasn’t actually won anything. Since David has long felt estranged from his father, however, and is somewhat emotionally adrift himself at the moment, he decides to drive Dad to Lincoln anyway (from Billings, Montana), just to give them an opportunity to spend some time together. Along the way, they wind up temporarily stranded in Hawthorne, Woody’s hometown, where his extended family and old friends are unduly excited to learn that a brand-new millionaire has come to town.

Though Nebraska is the first film of his that director Alexander Payne hasn’t co-written himself—the screenplay is by Bob Nelson—it fits snugly within his oeuvre, right down to the slightly troubling caricature of Midwestern behavior and values. (Payne is from Omaha, but seems to have a conflicted relationship with the state.) For the first time, however, he’s found nearly the right balance between mercilessness and pathos, which involves a slow and steady shift from the former to the latter over the course of the movie. Dern, who’s never received his due as one of the great American actors, makes Woody a pitiable figure who occasionally rouses himself to flashes of angry pride, and Forte, a former Saturday Night Live cast member, turns in an effectively low-key performance as a man discovering, through others, who his father used to be.

Payne remains prone to overkill—a scene in which Woody’s wife lifts her skirt over a dead ex’s grave to show him what he missed out on is gratuitously crass—but he captures here a vivid sense of resigned futility that rings true, beautifully complemented by the monochromatic imagery. When the woman at the sweepstakes office asks if Woody has Alzheimer’s, David says, “No, he just believes what people tell him.” Her casual, kindly reply—“Oh, that’s too bad”—is Nebraska’s bittersweet spirit in a nutshell.

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