It's a small, relatively simple story, intensely human.
A 40-something son takes a road trip with an aging, irascible father he's never really connected with or understood. In the process, he begins to see the old man in a new light.
Director Alexander Payne elevates “Nebraska,” a spare, sharply drawn dramedy set in his home state, to something rare and beautiful with trademark dry wit and his gift for capturing the essence of a particular place — a small town and the rural Great Plains, in this case.
The movie's beauty doubles if, like me, you grew up in a small Plains town. Bob Nelson's screenplay (clearly tweaked by Payne) is packed with instantly recognizable characters. The way people talk, a small-town way of keeping tabs on each other, a mindset about the outside world — it all came flooding back, making me double over in recognition and laughter time and again.
Wherever you're from, there's universal appeal in the stark beauty of Phedon Papamichael's black-and-white cinematography. Wistful autumn horizons; denuded trees and fields; thin, high clouds. Peeling paint and decaying wood. Humble, worn main-street storefronts from the turn of the century.
The father-son story, as well, will feel familiar to many. Woody and David Grant share something in common they don't recognize: disquiet as they look at the sum of their lives so far.
Early signs of dementia have ended Woody's driving days. But stubborn, boozy Woody (Bruce Dern) is focused on getting from Bozeman, Mont., to Lincoln, Neb., to claim $1 million he thinks he's won in a publishing sweepstakes. His angry wife, Kate (June Squibb), and son David (Will Forte) try to tell him it's a marketing come-on to buy magazines. Doesn't matter. Woody's going.
So David goes with him, hoping to steer him away from trouble. That's tougher duty when they land in tiny Hawthorne, Neb., the family stomping ground of Woody's youth. When word gets out that Woody's a millionaire, relatives and old friends misbehave, angling for a slice.
Forte, playing something of an earnest sad sack, brings great humanity to David, and Dern gives one of his most natural, underplayed performances as stubborn but vulnerable Woody. Squibb, who was Jack Nicholson's wife in “About Schmidt,” gives extra bite to Kate's acid tongue — a truly memorable and funny performance. Stacy Keach is just right as a slightly menacing loudmouth.
As usual with Payne movies, perfectly cast unknowns in cameo roles delight: Mary Louise Wilson as Woody's careworn sister-in-law; Angela McEwan as an old flame from his youth; Tim Driscoll and Devin Ratray as David's lunkhead cousins; Rance Howard (Ron's dad) as Woody's taciturn brother; Bob Odenkirk as Woody's other son.
City folk might not entirely get “Nebraska,” and the black-and-white cinematography, which feels so right for this story, could limit its draw with younger moviegoers. In those ways it might not have the broad accessibility of Payne's last movie, “The Descendants.”
But his gift for storytelling that combines great humor and heart — but never sticky sentimentality — continues. So does his focus on older men unhappy with where they find their lives. An overlying sadness is tempered with hope and humor.
Payne's moviemaking craft and care are evident everywhere in “Nebraska,” from casting, location and soundtrack choices to editing, filling the frame and pulling spot-on performances from his leads.
“Nebraska,” small yet profound, will be a player as the award season unfolds.
* * * * *
Quality: Three and a half stars (out of four)
Director: Alexander Payne
Stars: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Stacy Keach
Rating: R for profanity, frank sexual talk
Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes
Theater: Film Streams