The films of Alexander Payne (Election, The Descendants) routinely walk a fine line between exhibiting empathy and condescension for their characters, and with Nebraska, that balance swings toward the latter. Shot in stark, beautiful black-and-white that amplifies its atmosphere of gritty Midwestern austerity, Payne's latest follows drunken, semi-senile Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) as he attempts — with the begrudging efforts of son David (Will Forte) — to make his way from Montana to Nebraska to cash in what he mistakenly thinks is a winning $1 million mail-in sweepstakes award. This journey is interrupted by a pit stop at Woody's old hometown, where the duo reunites with rube relatives whose hayseed idiocy is milked for scornful laughs. That's also true of Woody's wife, Kate (June Squibb), whose exasperation with her selfish, no-good husband presents yet another means for Payne to look down upon his protagonists. Dern embodies Woody with a scraggly loutishness that's as amusing as it is quietly soulful, but there's a nagging sense during his and David's encounters with locals — including Woody's former business partner Ed (Stacy Keach), who buys Woody's millionaire story and comes looking for a handout — that the director is less interested in tackling issues of aging, regret, and familial bonds than in making his lower-class characters the butt of cheap jokes.
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