Nebraska opens Friday

Somewhere in the first half of Nebraska, a stalled-out road movie directed by Alexander Payne, a father and son stop on a near-empty street in a tiny town and get out of the car. They’re not lost; they have arrived at one of their destinations, somewhere between Billings, Mont., and Lincoln, Neb. It’s almost shocking. You mean, people actually live in these towns?

Payne and writer Bob Nelson show us that yes, indeed, these anonymous houses in ghostly quiet towns are occupied by real people with complicated lives. In Nebraska, David (Will Forte) drives his dad, Woody (Bruce Dern), 900 miles to claim a dubious prize, and they get stuck in Woody’s hometown for a few days.

It’s a study in what’s beneath the film’s own colorless exterior, its imagery a reversal of the lush, idealized views from the car in Payne’s Sideways. One of Nebraska‘s main characters is David’s boring modern station wagon, the kind of car that could evaporate the personality of anyone getting behind the wheel. Everyone who enters the frame dresses in cheap, ill-fitting clothes, their outfits practically interchangeable. The photography manages to be clinically crisp, stripping any vintage feel from the fact that it’s also black and white, looking washed-out, without any of the contrast that might add some drama to the aesthetic. Dern, formerly a wild iconoclast of ’70s American movies, looks like any old man you might see limping out of a bar in the afternoon.

There is absolutely nothing attractive about Nebraska.

Partly because of this, the movie has an awkward feel, occasionally humorous and strange, but also oppressively dull. Payne edges up against goofiness without the will to go all the way there, remaining close enough to the somber side of the fence to let David attempt serious conversations about his emotions. Even in the most farcical scene, in which David and his brother (Bob Odenkirk) become unwitting thieves, Payne won’t let the movie get up and run loose, nor will he time it precisely enough to let solid jokes land. He stays in an uneasy middle ground that’s truthful to David’s tentative approach to life. It’s consistent throughout the movie, and has a reason to be there, but it’s not very exciting.

In a way, that’s the point. David has to figure out his bland life, decide what’s important and start taking action. By confronting Woody’s mortality, David begins to confront his own, almost literally, in a scene in a cemetery. Putting him in scenery that’s so dusty and stifling, Payne is showing David that the only meaning or joy he’s going to find in Billings, Lincoln or anywhere else is what he brings to it.

Life peeks through the drab surface, as David discovers the contradictions of Woody’s personality. A well-played scene with David and one of his dad’s old flames (a lovable Angela McEwan) warms the middle of the movie by a few degrees. And there’s crackle and pop in just about every second that Stacy Keach is onscreen. As Woody’s old business partner, Keach gives his character tonal shifts that the rest of the movie lacks, as he holds court at the local tavern, croons a tender karaoke version of “In the Ghetto” at a steakhouse and confronts David in the men’s room.

As the movie fills with people from Woody’s family and his past, Payne and Nelson pack Nebraska with clichés, maybe on purpose, occupying an uncomfortable territory between observation and mockery. Stoic men watch football for hours on end while the wives sip coffee in the kitchen. Almost everyone’s speech is littered with overly familiar turns of phrase: Woody and David are both “stubborn as a mule,” elderly people have “senior moments” and Woody is the “man of the hour.” There’s a point at which Payne’s portrait of small-town Middle Americans devolves from quaint, to perfunctory, to cruel caricature. As was true in his installment in Paris, je t’aime, there’s something unsavory about an accomplished director of acclaimed, award-winning motion pictures seeming to merely tolerate his less sophisticated characters. Of course, these sayings are tired because people do actually overuse them, and clichés about stiff masculinity persist because men continue to act out stereotypes, so it’s not untruthful to put this stuff in a screenplay. But so much of the speech in Nebraska is made up of this kind of dumb, familiar talk that even when it’s ringing true, it becomes a real drag to listen to.

Nebraska is a movie about earning an identity, your responsibility to liven up your own environment and the sublimity of small victories. Everything about the look and feel of the movie makes sense, and Payne gets subtle, believable performances from his cast. But the way in which he observes his characters figuring things out, the way he mutes the exciting moments of their lives, and suggests that their biggest accomplishments will only ever be tiny victories, is an indication that he doesn’t really care much what happens to them.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Ghost town and country.”