The men in Alexander Payne's movies are on a constant journey. In About Schmidt, Jack Nicholson's Warren experiences late-life enlightenment when he travels cross-country to his daughter's wedding. In Sideways, Paul Giamatti and Thomas Hayden Church's characters experience an entire midlife crisis as they explore central California's wine country. Most recently, George Clooney's Matt King traveled the Hawaiian islands in an attempt to reconnect with his daughters and reconcile with his seriously injured wife in The Descendants. (You have to go back to Payne's first two features, Citizen Ruth and Election, to find female protagonists who were also seen at difficult crossroads.) In the process, Payne has become one of American cinema's most respected chroniclers of male discontent and awakening. If his latest, Nebraska, doesn't alter the formula, it also does so on a more refreshingly modest scale than that of The Descendants.
Starring Bruce Dern as Woody Grant, an alcoholic father staring down a possible future of Alzheimer's disease and assisted living, the film, like its immediate predecessors, tracks an aging male as he travels toward emotional reconciliation. Woody's relationship with his wife (June Squibb) is of the jokingly disrespectful variety, while his two sons, played by Will Forte and Bill Odenkirk, struggle to connect with a man they claim never had much time for them anyway. When Woody receives a bogus sweepstakes invitation to collect $1 million from a magazine company, he becomes determined to trek from his home in Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska in order to secure his winnings. Wanting a break from his dead-end salesman job, Forte's David agrees, against the will of his mother and brother, to indulge his dad's whim as perhaps one final chance at father-son bonding. When Woody becomes too unruly for David to handle, the two stop off in Woody's hometown of Hawthorne, where family and friends both new and old gather to celebrate and harass the prodigal son. From there, typically Payne-like hijinks ensue: the doofus cousins who chide David for driving too slow, the old women who alternately worship and resent Woody, and the old "friends" who attempt to swindle some cash from Woody's impending payday.
Nebraska will likely be praised for its modest approach to the father/son dynamic and its quietly moving sensibility. The Descendants was, in a sense, a victory lap for Payne, affording him the luxury of broadening his comedic approach and generally indulging his sappier side, and the film accordingly coasted on goodwill despite that fact that it laid many of his most problematic tendencies out on full display. Nebraska doesn't fix his stereotypical small-town characterizations (though, in my experience, having spent much time in the Midwest, I can say he gets closer to reality here than he did in About Schmidt), or his flair for bittersweet third-act harmonization, but it considerably downplays these little predicaments. Ultimately, Payne's films beg the question of whether or not the self-imposed journey of his protagonists have been worth the trip. In the case Nebraska, the trek is one worth embarking on, for both its characters and audience alike. [Slant]