As a science fiction fan, I frequently think about the Mirror Universe. Usually you need a Halkanian ion storm to get there, but one piece of it showed up on the Mediterranean coast during the Cannes Film Festival. Alexander Payne's "Nebraska" is fundamentally a reverso-version of David Lynch's "The Straight Story." A man toward the end of his life takes a quixotic journey through the central United States. Only this time, he's kind of an asshole.
Bruce Dern stars as Nick Nolte - no, that's not it, hold on. Ah, Bruce Dern stars as Billings, Montana's Woody Grant. An angry, (mostly) functional alcoholic no longer able to drive whose main focus in life is to make his wife Kate (June Squibb) miserable. The recipient of one of those Publisher's Clearing House letters, Woody is convinced there's a million dollar prize waiting for him. Unwilling to claim it through the mail, he insists on traveling to Lincoln, Nebraska, the source of the letter.
No amount of saying "this is just some scam" will deter him. Not from Kate, not from his back-up newscaster son Ross (Bob Odenkirk) or from his younger son, the melancholy consumer electronics salesman David (Will Forte.) Despite Woody's nasty demeanor, David has enough sympathy to take him on a car trip to Lincoln just to shut him up (and to keep him from getting picked up from cops each time he just gets up and starts walking there.)
Or, maybe it's that David recognizes there's some healing that needs to be done before his father dies - an event that will probably come soon the way Woody treats himself. David's girlfriend of two years recently moved out and her plea to "get married or break up or both - let's just do something!" seems to have hit home.
An accident along the way derails them a few hours outside of Lincoln, not too far from (surprise) the town where Woody and Kate come from. That's where all their miserable family members and old friends sit around and stare at the television and drink beer and live a life that is drab, ugly and meaningless.
Kate (and later Ross) come to visit by bus and a trip to the cemetery is among the film's highlights. She's what you'd call "a pistol" - eager to share secrets and speak frankly about sexuality, but is fundamentally not a very nice person. Neither is Woody's old business partner (a terrific Stacey Keach) or any of the relatives - especially when word of Woody's incoming million dollar prize starts to spread.
It takes this little trip (and some audience-pleasing hijinks similar to a naked Thomas Haden Church in Payne's "Sideways") to get the nuclear family in a car and laughing together again. It is to "Nebraska"'s credit, however, that these band-aids are never meant to imply old, deep wounds are even slightly healed. "You big idiot," is the most tender thing Kate will ever sat to Woody. Furthermore, Dern plays Woody inscrutably; just can't tell knows what's going on or not. His noncommittal grunts imply that he's reached full-on dementia, but then he'll lay in with a joke showing that he may be in full control.
"Nebraska" is a sad film, shot in striking black & white, and it pulls no punches in showing how gross the deteriorated main streets of America's heartland have become in a rough economy. Payne is darn-near ethnographic in his insistence of casting "real looking people." Dave's on-the-rocks girlfriend, appearing sympathetically in just one scene, is, by movies standards, practically a Medusa. In actuality she's representative of 99% of the world - it's just that we're not used to seeing people like that in movies.
Alexander Payne's first four films - "Citizen Ruth", "Election", "About Schmit" and "Sideways" - are all pretty stinking good, and they were all co-written by a fella named Jim Taylor. "The Descendants" was a step down, but still good. Taylor was a producer, but is not credited on the script. "Nebraska" doesn't have Taylor's name anywhere on it.
What am I getting at? Well, "Nebraska" still has much merit, but for Payne it is a little underwhelming. (For what it's worth, though, Taylor's other work includes "We Now Pronounce You Chuck And Larry," so this is definitely a two-way partnership.) It's not just that this is a small film, it is a slight film, and a little hard to fully embrace. There's an essence of falseness around the characters and the scenario, and the lack of full-throated bite holds it back from being harsh satire. There are some laughs - and a few moments worthy of tears - but there's a breaking point of believability in here somewhere that keeps "Nebraska" merely good as opposed to great.
SCORE: 6.9 / 10