Europeans created America by landing on the East Coast and moving West, in the process confecting the nation’s near-Biblical legend of Manifest Destiny. (Sorry, Indians.) That hope (or illusion) nourished our indigenous art forms: the picaresque novel and its cinematic equivalent, the road movie. The directors of the Cannes Film Festival must also be smitten with the genre. Last year they invited three films about young people traveling toward some tantalizing other place: Moonrise Kingdom, Cosmopolis and the movie version of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road.
The same wanderlust is examined in a trio of American films here this year. The Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis focused on a young urban folk singer hoping to get a big gig in Chicago. In James Franco’s adaptation of the William Faulkner novel As I Lay Dying, the patriarch of a backwoods Mississippi brood insists that they haul his late wife’s corpse to another town for burial. This evening we get Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, the new film from the director of Election, Sideways and The Descendants. A minor work with some incidental pleasures, Nebraska plays a more comic but no less acerbic variation on Faulkner’s theme of obsessive fathers, family members bound and imprisoned by blood, and the millions of also-rans seduced by the American Dream.
In Bob Nelson’s original screenplay, old Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), sinking into senility, is convinced that a million dollars awaits him in a magazine-subscription promotion, if only he can get from his Billings, Montana home to the sweepstakes company’s headquarters in Lincoln, Nebraska. Driving him there, with a few nostalgic stops, is his dutiful son David (Will Forte), soon joined by his brother Ross (Bob Odenkirk) and their mother Kate (June Squibb). On the way, father and son stop in their former hometown of Hawthorne, where Woody tells his old friends of his imminent good fortune. That cues a greed spree of locals eager to collect their share of the loot — a miniature, chimerical replay of the actual hundreds of millions at sake in The Descendants’ Hawaiian land deal.
The Grant clan is a mess — has been for decades. That Woody needs medical supervision is as plain as the hairs in the nose on his face. A dedicated alcoholic with no driver’s license, he goes wandering on foot down a Billings highway headed for Lincoln. That doesn’t stop him from roping David into a bar, where he insists, “Beer ain’t drinkin’,” and adds, with an Oedipal chill that he may not have unintended, “You’d drink, too, if you were married to your mother.”
(READ: Corliss’s review of Alexander Payne’s The Descendants)
Kate, who’s put up with this coot for a half-century, and is eager to send Woody to a home, has an explanation for his belligerence: “His mother spoiled him.” (Woody is, like, 80.) Ross has fled family responsibilities for modest success as a substitute anchor on a Billings TV news show. David, who sells electrical appliances and qualifies as the family’s token decent person, shares little with Woody, including the old man’s outsize fantasies. David’s wan hope is to reconnect with his overweight, under-beautiful girlfriend. Even that’s a long shot.
A Cornhusker born and bred, Payne set his first three films — Citizen Ruth, Election and About Schmidt — in his native state. To those living in Montana, Nebraska must be Xanadu, so devoutly does Woody believe in its financial and emotional restorative powers. Like the Coen brothers’ Fargo, set in Minnesota, this is a movie whose denizens think that the land of opportunity is anywhere else.
(READ: Richard Schickel on Alexander Payne’s About Schmidt)
You have to wonder, though, whether either Montanas or Nebraskans would warm to Payne’s group portrait, which veers between social satire and deadpan contempt. Released in black-and-white, the film suggests that the region is too poor, or the inhabitants too dour, to be shown in color. (No one is likely to scan the miles of flat lands and exclaim, “What beautiful scenery!) Except for Woody’s old Hawthorne buddy Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach), whose honeyed voice conceals a vindictive sting, virtually all of the men are stolid, mean of spirt and near-mute: eight of them sit in a parlor wordlessly watching a baseball game as if auditioning for a reality show based on Grant Wood’s American Gothic. There’s little heart in Payne’s heartland.
The annoyance quotient rises with the script’s insistence on the million-dollar sweepstakes coupon. Woody may believe he’s a winner, but anyone over 40 knows that the small print requires a lucky number on your ticket. To clear up the misunderstanding in a trice — David would need to speak only two words: Ed McMahon.
(READ: Joel Stein’s profile of Alexander Payne)
Look in the corners of this corrosive fresco and find some tangy supporting performances. Some last only a second, like the appliance-store browser who corrects David’s pronunciation of her name: not Janice but “Janeece.” When David’s uncle says that his son Cole did some time in jail, Cole (Devin Ratray), spits out, “Bitch lied through her teeth.” The sweetest, most acute work is by Angela McEwan as Peg, an old girlfriend of Woody’s and the wisest soul in two states. She and Woody broke up, she tells David, because “I wouldn’t let him round the bases.”
Squibb is excellent as the serpent-toothed wife of a “useless” man she is still ready to defend agains scavengers. And Dern gives good value as a fading senior whose sin and strength are that he refuses to accept his weakness. There’s no need for Forte, the viewers’ designated surrogate, to italicize the exasperation David feels for his father. We feel it too. But Forte overplays the underplaying: shoulder slumps, sidelong glances, hangdog mortification. If a drinking game required you to empty a shot glass every time Forte expelled a mournful sigh, by the end of the film you’d be drunker than Woody ever was.
We don’t doubt that Alexander Payne and Bob Nelson know the people they put in the movie. To get a more lyrical sense of the state, you’ll need to consult a Jersey boy, and listen again to the Bruce Springsteen album Nebraska.