As proud and self-absorbed Santa Barbarans, we like to think of director Alexander Payne in somewhat proprietary terms, whose Sideways was both the best film made in Santa Barbara County (tied with Cutter’s Way) and one which literally helped fuel the Santa Ynez Valley “wine country” boom. But, in some way, the Omaha-bred Payne’s strangely wondrous new film, Nebraska, is truer to his own roots and unique filmographic home base, a continuation of a series of quirky, funny shaggy doggy Nebraskan films he left off with in 2002’s brilliant About Schmidt. That previous Nebraskan saga was also about an elderly man in search of self and meaning, and also with a stellar performance by the lead Jack Nicholson as Schmidt, similar to Bruce Dern’s turn as Woody Grant here, in powerful minimalist mumbling form.
In a sense, the star of Nebraska is Dern’s hair, a scraggly and permanently uncombed wisp of a ’do which perfectly embodies his post-alcoholic daze and late-breaking soul search. We first meet it, and him, in a telling opening scene, as he is shuffling down a street in Billings, Montana, on his way to Nebraska to claim his booty. Dern’s character is a dreamer with deferred dreams even while being, in realistic terms, bamboozled by the prospect of a million-dollar prize sweepstakes. But what promises to become a road-trip film after his son (Will Forte, in straight man mode) agrees to drive him to the town in Nebraska, gets stalled and waylaid in the old man’s hometown. There, his quest for transcendence is tainted by old scores and wounds, dredged up partly through the agency of his sourpuss wife (played with salty, crusty charm by June Squibb).
Shot in glorious, dreamy, and creamy black and white by frequent Payne collaborator, cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, Nebraska is both a valentine to days and ways gone by and a requiem for closeted ghosts. Along the way, the film stops for moments of Payne-esque dry and darkly witty picaresque comic fizz, sometimes in a context as mundane as men perched before a ball game in the archetypal Midwestern living room.
With his latest, Nebraska boy Payne has come home again — or returned home for a wistfully poetic visit — and delivered another peculiar but ultimately touching doozy of a film.