*** (out of four)
Though sometimes very funny, the black-and-white “Nebraska” is a movie of worn-out people in worn-out places. Jobs are scarce; conversation is minimal. It looks like many of these faces haven’t smiled, really smiled, in ages.
So when Woody (Chicago native Bruce Dern) and his son, David (Will Forte in a rare dramatic role), humoring him, stop in dad’s hometown on the way to pick up his million-dollar winnings from a sweepstakes mailing, it’s no surprise that the folks in Hawthorne, Neb., get excited about his fortune. Well, at first. Old friends toast Woody as a celebrity, and the local paper wants to do a story. Then family and ex-business partners start calling in old favors, wondering how a man they say took so much from them could hit the jackpot and leave them out in the cold.
If that financial bickering sounds familiar, it’s because director Alexander Payne (“Election,” “About Schmidt”) covered similar ground in 2011’s spotty “The Descendants.” With “Nebraska,” he delivers additional laughs and a deeper sense of people revealing their true colors. Some family members may as well be strangers, and those who haven’t given up are hanging on distantly to dreams they barely recall.
Of course, Payne can’t totally get away from his trademark condescension. Too often “Nebraska” repeats its dim view of small-town intelligence; an effort to depict limited opportunities becomes a judgment of unappealing people living unfulfilling lives. Certain local flourishes are both revealing and hilarious—it’s hard not to love the mundane comments among old, non-chatty guys while watching a Bears/Lions football game—but other details go too far. Really, David’s mom (a memorable June Squibb) flashes her downstairs goods to the tombstone of a guy she says wanted to get in her pants?
Ultimately, “Nebraska” attempts to paste on emotion that’s not quite there and teach lessons that seem like they’ve already been learned. Yet these characters demonstrate that just because your search was fruitless doesn’t mean the trip isn’t worthwhile.
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