The reigning champ of bleak works of art with the title Nebraska remains Bruce Springsteen’s 1982 album. A short-story collection about losers and psychos, accompanied by lonely acoustic guitar and packed in the dry ice of despair, Springsteen’s Nebraska invited compassion for the down and out, the devil’s rejects. Alexander Payne’s film Nebraska, on the other hand, holds its subjects at an aesthetic arm’s length. It’s shot (by Phedon Papamichael) in pristine black and white, and on a wide, wide canvas, emphasizing the flat beauty of the Midwest as it dwarfs the nothing-special people who (barely) occupy it. The movie keeps scoring small, unpleasant points off its harmless characters; it is everything I detest about a certain subspecies of “indie” film. It keeps parading its own unearned superiority.
The protagonist, crankily retired Woody Grant of Billings, Montana (Bruce Dern), has received a letter informing him (he thinks) that he’s won a million dollars. Everyone around Woody — his wife Kate (June Squibb), his grown sons David (Will Forte) and Ross (Bob Odenkirk) — knows it’s a scam designed to sell magazines, but stubborn Woody keeps sneaking off to walk the 750 miles to Nebraska to collect his cash. Eventually, David offers to drive Woody there and stop off in Woody’s hometown of Hawthorne. We get the sense that the million dollars is only an excuse or an impetus for a deeper desire in Woody to chuck everything and walk away from his disappointing life. But Payne and his screenwriter Bob Nelson have made that life disappointing. The movie’s view of humanity, especially as word spreads in Hawthorne about Woody’s incipient payday and everyone starts to circle him for handouts, is callowly caustic.
We’ve been down this saggy-soul-of-America road with Payne before, in 2002′s overrated About Schmidt, which trained a similar coldly curious eye on Midwesterners. We are assured by the usual fawning press that Payne himself hails from Nebraska and lives there part of the year, so he couldn’t possibly intend Nebraska as snotty city-mouse commentary, right? Whenever possible, people are framed within the wide compositions to render them insignificant; for his other trick, Payne stares head-on at the wizened, stoic codgers and the derisive fatties as they sit in a sparse living room absorbed in afternoon football. These people are damned by their simple values, their bland tastes and interests. Woody seems content enough to sit among them, and David’s attempt to strike out in the larger world — selling Bose speakers at a strip mall — is also sneered at by the movie, as is his brother Ross’s substitute gig as a local-news anchorman. Is there any way for a person in this film to live that would meet with the approval of its director?
When David Lynch took a comparable tour of flyover country with a senior citizen, in 1999′s The Straight Story, he brought out the enchantment and pleasant strangeness of the land and its people. The movie was good-hearted (and ten times the artistic achievement that Payne’s film is) without being sappy. Nebraska‘s heart pumps acid yet also gets clogged with sap, a bizarre and toxic mixture. Waddling about with tufts of duck-feather hair sticking out like a halation of mental disorder, Bruce Dern is monotonously antagonistic, as I’m sure Payne directed him to be; that Woody doesn’t grow or change doesn’t make him any less of a sentimental cliché, since he’s defined mostly by how the exasperated David relates to him (it’s the Rain Man prestige-buddy-road-trip dynamic all over again). Performances don’t matter much here anyway — the actors are coached to flatten their delivery to conform to that of the local non-actors with whom Payne loves to fill the margins of his movies.
A filmmaker who considers himself smart and artistic has no business taking shots at such slow-moving targets as karaoke singers. Ha ha! These rubes are terrible singers and have nothing better to do with their afternoons! I got angrier at Nebraska the longer it trudged on, its ostentatiously bedraggled milieu less and less mitigated by its fashionably stark cinematography. The movie has zero to say about what it shows us; unlike even the troubling rural inner chaos depicted in Werner Herzog’s Stroszek and Harmony Korine’s Gummo — both of which also sported some surrealistic verve and freakshow showmanship — Nebraska has no spirit, no life. It’s just small people with small lives and small vision milling around a gigantic canvas, until Woody gets what he wants, and then the movie ends, whereupon I got what I wanted.