Filmmaker Alexander Payne loves his home state enough to live there half the year. He reveres Hollywood's silent era so much that he threatened a walkout if he couldn't shoot his latest movie in black-and-white. And he wanted to give 77-year-old Bruce Dern a shot at a great valedictory performance. Those are fine reasons to have made Nebraska — but not quite cause enough to see it.
Payne, director and co-writer of The Descendants, Sideways, About Schmidt, Election and Citizen Ruth, usually doesn't have trouble with character dimension and storytelling momentum. That is, he has rarely hesitated to sacrifice those elements to achieve certain effects. Depending on your admiration for the above-named movies, those effects include either gut laughs punched out by brass-knuckle home truths or cheap shots aimed at flabby homebodies.
Nebraska, from a script credited only to first-timer Bob Nelson, amplifies more of the latter, and Payne too often lets these already small characters recede into the distance. That distance is sharp and often lovely, thanks to cinematographer Phedon Papamichael's deep, detailed black-and-white compositions. But the people in the foreground can't withstand Payne's slow, unblinking scrutiny.
Dern, under an Einstein shock of white hair, suffers most. He plays Woody Grant, the kind of nonthreatening alcoholic bad-dad cipher native to movies of a certain gnarled whimsy. Woody has fixated on a bulk-rate sweepstakes letter promising a $1 million prize. Neither his wife nor his sons can talk him out of this last-century marketing mirage, and Woody, his driver's license long gone, is ready to walk from Billings, Montana, to Lincoln, Nebraska, to stake his claim. He's less willing to explain his faulty logic (this, we understand, is how it has always been), and Dern conveys Woody through a series of impatient grunts, exasperated refusals and a twist-hipped shuddering walk. It's the sort of vanity-free work that generates attention (Dern won the best-actor prize at Cannes this year), but Woody is so lightly conceived that it's hard even to project your own redemptive hopes onto him.
Redemption isn't the point — this is still Payne's movie — but the rest of the characters offer little to recognize and less to ponder. Will Forte, the Saturday Night Live veteran and MacGruber star, comes closest as David, the son who agrees to haul Woody toward his cash. The role requires mainly that Forte absorb insults and shocks without yielding to anger, and he does this very well. (His best scenes aren't with Dern; he's magnetic in a quiet meeting with a newspaper publisher, played by Angela McEwan, and during a couple of confrontations with a jarring Stacy Keach.) He's easy enough to watch that you almost miss the funniest of the dismayed faces that Bob Odenkirk gets to make as Woody's other son, Ross.
June Squibb, the spouse felled during the first reel of About Schmidt, attacks her part — Kate, Woody's wife — with a relish that transcends the character's most vulgar shortcomings. In a movie that sinks too comfortably into glib assumptions about rural mores, failed fathers and sputtering marriages, she's alert to the script's few available chances to surprise. And she helps Dern's fine performance seem like more than this movie allows it to be.