Alexander Payne is the king of the road movie. There, I said it. He may not make something with the drug-fueled bravura of “Easy Rider” or the zaniness of “Vacation,” but nobody consistently creates more grounded, hilarious road films like Payne. “Sideways,” “About Schmidt” and even “The Descendants” to an extent are all fantastic road movies. Payne’s latest, “Nebraska,” is simply another winner in a trophy cabinet full of them.
Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) is an aging drunk making a slow decent into senility. Convinced he’s won a Publisher’s Clearinghouse type contest, all he wants is to get to Lincoln, NE to collect his winnings. He’ll walk if he has to. His son, David (Will Forte), in a moment of sympathy for his dad, decides to drive him. As people begin hearing Woody’s story, hangers-on from all over try to get a piece of the pie.
Payne loves examining the effect power, influence and money have on people, especially those who want it but don’t have it. “The Descendants” looked at the alacrity (?) the possibility of money can have on people, and that theme continues in “Nebraska.” Woody spent his life with little money, and now that he may have some, everyone wants to get in on the action. Friends, family, you name it. To quote “The Real World,” money makes people stop being polite and start getting real. At least Payne thinks so.
Most of the time, “Nebraska” is quintessential Payne. Nobody captures the Mid-West like he can. Filming in black and white, Payne captures his native area with a nostalgic eye for what used to be and is now slowly dying as cities rise. J.R.R. Tolkien may have Middle Earth, but Alexander Payne has Middle America.
Dern, with his thin, scraggly, white hair and noticeable limp, is impossible to discern from Woody. Spacing out, needing help taking steps, speaking in short, stunted sentences, one wonders if Dern has turned in a masterful performance or really is slowing down at the age of 77. As superb as Dern is, he’s usurped by one of his co-stars: June Squibb.
Squibb, who also appeared in Payne’s “About Schmidt” as Jack Nicholson’s wife, makes the film come crackling to life with her performance. After a lifetime of dealing with her alcoholic husband, she just doesn’t care anymore. She’ll do or say anything that comes to mind, probably the only way she could handle her husband and stay sane. Dern may be getting most of the accolades, but Squibb steals the show right out from under everybody.
Alexander Payne may not churn out films at the pace of Woody Allen, but he is to the Mid-West what Allen is to New York. A native son who’s captured a particular place at a particular time with respect and a keen comedic eye, even when Payne travels to Hawaii (“The Descendants”) or Napa Valley (“Sideways”), his films still imbue a small town feel. “Nebraska” is further proof we are seeing an auteur at his prime.