The sixth feature from the director of Sideways could only be more Oscar bait-y if it were dragging Meryl Streep along on a hook in its wake. Bruce Dern – expect him on every conceivable short list next spring – does sterling work as Woody, a befuddled older gentleman with a consuming yen to travel to Lincoln, Nebraska, where, he insists, a million dollar prize awaits. No matter how often his shrill, exasperated wife (Squibb) and relief local news anchor son (Odenkirk) explain that the letter is a scam, the old man remains intent on collecting his jackpot in person.
“I’m not trusting the mail with a million dollars,” he tells his family incredulously.
It falls to David (Forte, excellent), Woody’s kindly younger son, to drive his father, who is clearly in the early, yet increasingly demanding stages of Alzheimer’s, across the country. The journey takes them from Montana and through the small, one-horse town where Woody grew up and where his brothers still reside.
Shot in monochrome and punctuated by many curtseys toward Hollywood’s post-classical milieu (and The Last Picture Show in particular) Nebraska seems to summarise everything that’s great and everything that’s trying about Alexander Payne. The screenplay is both dryly and broadly comical and works to remind us that between classy, award-winning dramedies (About Schmidt, The Descendents) the same director co-wrote the Adam Sandler vehicle I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry.
Nebraska is unlikely to have that kind of commercial clout but it is a crowd-pleaser. Beneath the mom and pop window dressing, the film's self-conscious sense of Americana, like the blaring use of mariachi horns and bluegrass accordion on the soundtrack, is as calculating as a John Williams string section.
The writing, too, although folksy by ear, is precisely calibrated. Seldom does a scene go by without somebody singing the virtues of doing something, anything, to relieve the boredom of small town life. When David wonders if he should marry the girlfriend who just walked out on him or just break up, she responds with jaded desperation: “Let’s do both; let’s do something”.
Such observational moments rescue Nebraska from its own cool neatness.