Scene & Heard: ‘Nebraska’ is Payne’s finest work to date

As someone who watches and reviews a lot of movies, I know I’m supposed love virtually anything Alexander Payne connects his name to.

But the truth of the matter is I didn’t enjoy “Sideways,” “The Descendants” or “About Schmidt,” all of which he directed, and “Cedar Rapids” and “The Savages,” films he executive produced, weren’t my cup of tea, either.

So when I got the list of films that would screen at this year’s Twin Cities Film Fest, I wasn’t exactly excited to see that Payne directed the opening night film “Nebraska.”

It didn’t take me very long at all to realize that there was something different about this one … even if I couldn’t put my finger on it right away.

Like has been the case in many of Payne’s films, “Nebraska” deals with a relatable situation — an aging parent — but adds some over-the-top or at least quirky situations in to lighten the story up a bit.

Bruce Dern (Best Supporting Actor nominee for “Coming Home” – 1979) plays Woody Grant, an aging, booze-soaked man who’s convinced he’s won a large sum of cash from a sweepstakes (think Publisher’s Clearinghouse).

Unable to drive himself or convince his wife, Kate (June Squibb, “Meet Joe Black,” “Scent of a Woman”), to drive him from their home in Billings, Mont. to collect his “winnings” in Lincoln, Neb., Woody makes several efforts to walk to his prize.

Despite several roadblocks, Woody remains undeterred in his mission and eventually recruits his son, David (Will Forte, “Saturday Night Live”), to drive him cross-country to claim the prize.

Over the course of their adventure, the duo meets up with some family members and friends from Woody’s past and David comes to realize that there’s much more to his father than the quiet, often intoxicated man he’s come to know.

There’s an awful lot to like about “Nebraska,” but the most obvious thing is the performance of Dern. Almost unrecognizable as Woody, Dern plays the unassuming, disheveled man with a quiet dignity that is often not given when a character is an alcoholic – his issues are obvious, but aren’t played up in an unbelievable comedic manner is often the case. You know that the things he’s done and is doing means you shouldn’t cheer for him, but there’s something sincere and likable about him.

However, the biggest surprise of the film is the performance of Forte. The big screen hasn’t been all that kind to SNL alums (cough, Rob Schneider, cough), but if he avoids the pitfall of relying on Adam Sandler films to line his pockets, Forte could become an exception to the rule.

He brings to David the same earnestness that Dern brings to Woody. Definitely a flawed human being, but one you can’t help but like, despite his shortcomings.

The story, written by Bob Nelson, is a nice reflection of “real life” – at times light and fun and at others dark and confusing. He tiptoes the line between drama and comedy adeptly by using comedy to lighten moments that could easily spiral downward and levity to not allow it to go too far in the opposite direction.

Those aspects are all controlled by Payne. In the past I’ve felt that some of his characters have overshadowed the story he’s trying to tell and relied too much on those over-the-top moments. “Nebraska” has its share of “did that really just happen moments,” but they’re not the most memorable moments of the film as has been the case in the past.

Rating: ★★★★1/2  (out of ★★★★★)