Cannes Review: Alexander Payne goes home, but doesn’t hit home, in ‘Nebraska’

CANNES – “Nebraska,” Alexander Payne’s latest dramedy of American ennui and mislaid family relationships, opens with a vintage monochrome Paramount Pictures ident standing in for the flashier, CGI-enhanced mountain peak of recent years. It’s a detail that may strike you either as a cute throwaway (hey, the film’s in old-timey black-and-white!) or something rather more calculated. Like so many of his peers, Payne is deeply indebted to the American new wave of the 1970s, and with its Bogdanovich-esque lensing and revival of Bruce Dern, “Nebraska” cops to that debt pretty openly with this badge of cinematic classicism. That’s all well and good, but is it stretching to detect a certain smug conservatism there too, a whiff of self-congratulation in its resistance to the new?

Probably. It’d be unfair, after all, to suggest that “Nebraska” romanticizes traditional heartland values: if anything, much of the melancholy in Payne’s first onscreen visit to his home state since 2002’s “About Schmidt” (which was also, coincidentally, his last entry at Cannes) hinges on its elderly inhabitants being as pettily venal today as they were 40 years ago. A certain shrugging sourness has been Payne’s career-long signature, coloring films as wonderful as “Election” and as phony as “The Descendants” alike, but only in more recent works has that perspective been presented as humanism: how much empathy and affection you detect in “Nebraska”‘s gallery of bitter old coots will affect how warmly you respond to it.

The film’s lead character, Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), is certainly a mournfully sentimental creation: a plainspoken but increasingly addled former mechanic who’s not so much raging against the dying of the light as giving it a hard stare. His crusty demeanor doesn’t go far toward masking a vulnerable guilelessness that propels the entire narrative, as he falls for one of those junk-mail sweepstakes letters promising a prize of a million dollars to anyone naive enough to ignore the fine print. “He just believes stuff that people tell him,” explains his son, David (Will Forte), to the company clerk finally charged with letting Woody down easily. “Oh, that’s too bad,” she replies brightly.

It’s the most quintessentially Payne-ful exchange in a script that, in an unusual break from routine, the director didn’t actually write himself — decrying a contemporary world in which nothing should be taken at face value, and where those who persist in doing so wind up with only the puniest of rewards for their sincerity. The blandly conciliatory David, who humors his father’s delusions to the extent of proposing a father-son road trip to collect Woody’s non-existent winnings, is constructed as a prissy emblem of modern-day disingenuousness. His milquetoast politeness only worsens the farcical situation as Woody and David make a pit stop in their former hometown of Hawthorne, Nebraska, and word of Woody’s false good fortune ripples through his opportunistic circle of old friends and extended family — all of whom, questionably, are depicted as too dense to doubt his story. As tempers run high and old grudges and debts surface, it’s David’s unyielding, bullshit-averse mother Kate (June Squibb, ripely overplaying) who repeats rights the situation with her blunt candor; in Payne’s world, you catch more flies with vinegar than with honey.

This is a tidy enough setup for a sharp comedy of manners, though Payne can’t seem to decide if he’s coddling these old-school Midwesterners for their rudely rustic values or sneering at the sheer narrowness of their worldview. Sometimes it does both at once: a galling bum note in Bob Nelson’s script comes when David’s sweetly stupid aunt explains that her deadbeat son did jail time for “sexual assault, not rape… there’s a difference,” a potentially telling line that the film simply plays awkwardly for laughs. The younger generation of Nebraskans shown in the film isn’t any more enlightened, as David’s loutish cousins (one of them the aforementioned rapist) jeer him for driving a “Jap car,” among other such sissy-ish traits.

There’s an argument to be made that Payne, famously a son of Omaha, is putting himself up for scrutiny here, poking fun at the flawed society that raised and continues to mark him: something he arguably did in his earlier work, where even characters as deplorable as “Election” anti-heroine Tracy Flick were possessed of an admirable, self-preserving intelligence. But it’s hard to see much self-identification in the comedy he creates from these small-minded, materialistic rubes, and even if you accept the film as an exercise in self-loathing — hard to do, given the arch tone of Nelson’s script — that doesn’t make its portrait of the middle-class Midwest any less condescending. And that’s to say nothing of the way it views almost any character over retirement age as a figure of fun, whether in the one-note feistiness of Squibb’s character (can we have a moratorium on foul-mouthed old women as comic standbys?) or the doddering, circular-speaking cluelessness of Woody’s male contemporaries. 

If “Nebraska” is finally warmer and more amusing than “The Descendants” — which cunningly swept its misogyny and misanthropy under a politically correct plea for social and geographical preservation — it’s because the father-son relationship at its core carries some sweet us-against-the-world strength, even if Woody himself is as oblivious to that as he is to nearly everything else around him. It’s touching and believable, however misguided, that David persists with the sweepstakes fantasy, even with no contingency plan in place for its inevitable unravelling, and it’s to the credit of Nelson’s script that the two don’t seem to understand each other any more at the film’s inconclusive close than they did at the beginning.

If no actual tears arrive by this point, that could be down to performances that seem functional rather than truly invested. Dern imbues Woody with a kind of dishevelled dignity, but conveys little subtext beneath between the character’s permanently bemused surliness — one wonders what Payne’s first choice, the inflexibly retired Gene Hackman, would have made of the role in a Royal Tenenbaum mood. Forte, in a role that requires tetchy specificity, hasn’t the strength of presence to make David much more than an agreeable sap.

There’s an easy breeziness to the leading men’s interplay that Payne has evidently fostered in the same manner that he demands of his craftsmen: Phedon Papamichael’s cleanly composed black-and-white cinematography doesn’t have much use for heavy contrast, while Kevin Tent’s shaggy editing all-too-frequently resorts to twee ‘wipe’ cuts. Mark Orton’s folksy acoustic score, with its relentlessly repeated motifs, will no doubt find plenty of fans, but its insistent tone of downbeat poignancy doesn’t quite square with the flip tone of all too many scenes, as if Payne is trying to pass the film off as something less cynical than it actually is. Payne’s homecoming will be treasured by his many devotees as a work of rueful, backward-looking humanity, but for this critic, it’s his earlier, more nakedly cruel films that still cut deepest; the home fires are kept flickering in “Nebraska,” but they don’t really burn.