In a previous interview with TOH!, Payne described the film as "a father/son road trip from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska that gets waylaid at a crappy town in central Nebraska where the father (Bruce Dern) grew up, and where he has scores to settle." Dern's character, a washed-up, alcholic dad, believes he's won a Publisher's Clearing House million-dollar sweepstakes, forcing his distant son (Forte) to come along for some bonding and inevitable mischief-making.
After making side trips to California’s Central Coast and Hawaii (for “Sideways” and “The Descendants,” respectively), Alexander Payne returns to his home state of Nebraska for his sixth directorial feature, a wistful ode to small-town Midwestern life and the quixotic dreams of stubborn old men. Sporting a career-crowning performance by Bruce Dern and a thoroughly impressive dramatic turn by “SNL”/“30 Rock” alum Will Forte, Payne’s first film based on another writer’s original screenplay (by debut feature scribe Bob Nelson) nevertheless fits nicely alongside his other low-concept, finely etched studies of flawed characters stuck in life’s well-worn grooves.
After the glossy and faintly implausible Oscar-bait picture, The Descendants, director Alexander Payne has returned to a more natural and personal movie language for his new film in the Cannes competition. Nebraska is a bittersweet road movie starring Bruce Dern and Will Forte as Woody and David, an elderly father and middle-aged son taking an uncomfortable road trip together. ..Nebraska may not be startlingly new, and sometimes we can see the epiphanies looming up over the distant horizon; the tone is, moreover, lighter and more lenient than in earlier pictures like Sideways. But it is always funny and smart, and what is unexpected is the cracking performance from June Squibb as Woody's cantankerous wife, Kate.
Happily, his new film is The Descendants’ exact opposite, to the extent that Payne could quite easily have called it The Ancestors. In fact its title is Nebraska, and it screened in Cannes on Thursday morning as part of the festival’s competition strand. Payne’s film is a bittersweet elegy for the American extended family, shot in a crisp black-and-white that chimes neatly with the film’s concern for times long past.
Like every Payne movie, "Nebraska" involves neurotic characters afraid of their own mortality. The specter of death and lives not worth living hangs over "Nebraska." It's a subtle idea that lacks inspiration. A Nebraska native, Payne has evidently made a personal movie about a place and time where nobody goes anywhere but most people make peace with their limitations. With the affably unexceptional "Nebraska," Payne follows suit.
Befitting its Paramount heritage, there is a muted Preston Sturges element to the film’s view of the human condition in the way the populace’s heads are completely turned by the presence of celebrity, which the confused Woody [Bruce Dern] now represents, and a possible financial windfall. Two of Sturges’s classics, Hail the Conquering Hero and The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, turned on very similar premises.
Part of the issue is that there isn’t that much else to talk about.