Presumably, Alexander Payne's decision to craft his last two films without longtime screenwriting partner Jim Taylor has provided him with some career satisfaction. You might call it a personal journey, like the one undertaken by Woody T. Grant (Bruce Dern) in Payne's latest, "Nebraska." You might also call it a senior moment, but Payne, unlike the crotchety, wispy haired Woody, is only 52.
The trip hasn't been quite as satisfying for audiences. Payne has ventured to these wide expanses of the American Midwest, with their ordinary homes and malls, in a few previous films, all of them better. While "Nebraska" often is an amusing entertainment, and a big step up from Payne's previous film, it isn't nearly as deep or satisfying as "Citizen Ruth," "Election," "About Schmidt" or any of the films he made with Taylor as his writing partner.
"Nebraska" opens with Woody on his way from Billings, Mont., to Lincoln, Neb., on foot. The retiree recently received a notice in the mail that he won $1 million. His family, especially his youngest son, David (Will Forte), try to convince Woody that the notice is a scam, similar to certain sweepstakes mailers. But the senior Grant, perhaps suffering a little from dementia — or a lot, we aren't sure — is convinced. So after arguments with his mother, Kate (June Squib), and brother, Ross (Bob Odenkirk), David decides to take Woody to Lincoln. He sees it as a chance to cure his father of the misunderstanding, and to spend some quality time together before the old man is lost forever to age.
Along the way the film introduces a host of comical small-town types. There's Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach), Woody's old business partner, a garrulous rascal who all of a sudden recalls that Woody owes him money. So does Woody's family, a herd of slothful retirees and reprobates who watch television the way cows watch the horizon. These are some colorful characters, the most memorable being Woody's feisty wife, who stops criticizing Woody only when she's asleep. Squib is a scene-stealer in every one she's in, not just the one lifting her skirt. She even makes everyday harping funny.
But "Nebraska" mostly is built on passages of long-form comedy, such as the lengthy sequence in which David and Ross decide, on a whim, while passing Ed Pegram's place, to steal back the air compressor he supposedly stole from Woody many years ago. Too bad that after the two heft the contraption into the car, they find out it's the wrong house. Other scenes simply let common conversation drift into an absurd degree of banality. A lot of "Nebraska" is parody and caricature, but set to an extremely slow boil.
"Nebraska" can be viewed a few different ways, and not many of them are kind to the Midwest. Maybe the film is a metaphor for the area as a gullible old coot like Woody. Written by Bob Nelson, it can't avoid comparison to "About Schmidt," starring Jack Nicholson as a retiree who wakes up one day to the fact that his life has meant nothing, and proceeds with a last-minute but confused attempt to rectify things. Woody Grant's mind is much less focused, and his quest is even more blackly comical. But although Dern arguably gives a performance as good as Nicholson's, it isn't as meaningful. The material just doesn't support it.
Much of Nebraska is quite funny to those disposed to its brand of deadpan humor. Dern gives one of the best performances of his long and stellar career, and is supported by a wonderful cast. But the film also requires buying a thin premise — that Woody is just senile enough to believe he's won a sweepstakes, but not too far gone to forget he's won, or to not understand what he's won. It's likely that Payne, who's also from the Midwest, chose this material based on the familiar setting and people. The question while laughing at the expense of all the small-town dupes is never where we are, but where we're going. (R) 115 min. S