Alexander Payne is on some kind of hot streak, with all four of his major features receiving Oscar nominations and his last two (Sideways and The Descendants) both earning Best Picture nominations and taking home statues for Best Adapted Screenplay.
His latest, Nebraska, may have a bit of an uphill battle to keep the streak alive. Set to be released on the heels (by Payne's standard) of 2011's The Descendants, the charming film is a fair bit less accessible due to some pacing problems and the odd decision to shoot it in black and white. But once it gets going, the comic moments are pure Payne gold -- and the kind of heartwarming fare that the Academy might just flip for once again.
Set mainly in the state of its title, Nebraska actually begins in Montana. Will Forte plays Davey, an electronics salesman whose romantic relationship is recently on the skids. Davey is a good son and spends more than his fair share of time dropping in on his parents Woody (Bruce Dern) and Kate (June Squibb). The slightly senile Woody is a cantankerous old fart who has recently taken to sneaking out of the house with the intention of walking the 900-odd miles to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim one million dollars in prize money promised to him by a publisher's sweepstakes. Everyone knows this is bogus, but Davey is fed up with his mother's bitching and moaning and decides to drive his pops to Nebraska as an opportunity to reconnect.
A turn of events leads to Davey and Woody spending the weekend in Woody's hometown, where Kate and Davey's older brother (played hilariously by Bob Odenkirk) turn up for the impromptu family reunion. Things get interesting when the townsfolk catch wind of Woody's newfound riches and suddenly Woody is a local hero. Everyone takes Davey's pronouncement of falsehood as modesty, and Woody's family and friends line up with reasons why they should get in on some of the prize money.
Nebraska's biggest fault is that it takes so long to get going. Things piddle along until father and son reach Nebraska and there are plenty of speed bumps once there as well. Luckily Bruce Dern's performance is strong enough to overlook that aspect and a Best Supporting Actor nomination for the once-nominated 76-year-old seems a very likely possibility.
The jury is still out on whether Forte can handle such a meaty role. Some scenes make him out to be a top-notch pro, while in others he still seems to be the guy who just learned his lines on Saturday Night Live. Part of the problem may be that Davey's character is given almost no development outside of his bonds with his family. The threads of his work and romantic life never develop into much -- though that's probably all right as those are the most boring bits from the film's first 45 minutes.
A bit of a tale of two movies, ultimately Nebraska delights more than it disappoints. The film is filled with interesting insight on America and the family unit. Payne's signature comedy comes out in great interactions between Davey, his mom, and the moochers looking for handouts. But the film fundamentally comes down to a journey between Woody and his son Davey. If you can connect to that (a task made much easier by Dern), chances are you'll enjoy your trip to the Cornhusker State.
Review originally published in slightly different form during the Cannes Film Festival in May 2013. The film opens in select U.S. theaters on Friday, November 15. Visit the official site for more information.