Alexander Payne isn’t a particularly prolific filmmaker, but the movies that he does make are of the highest quality. At least, that was the case before “Nebraska,” which marks the director’s first bad film of his career. Well, not exactly bad per se, but the black-and-white dramedy is surprisingly mediocre for someone whose other movies are counted among the best American-made films of the past 15 years. “Nebraska” sees Payne return to his home state for a relatively simple story about a father-son road trip, and though it features some good laughs and decent performances, the movie never really goes anywhere.
Bruce Dern stars as Woody Grant, a stubborn, booze-addled crank who believes he’s just won $1 million from a Mega Sweepstakes Marketing prize letter he received in the mail. It’s the kind of magazine subscription scam that most people have been targeted by at least once in their life, but Woody doesn’t know any better, so when his wife Kate (June Squibb) refuses to drive him from their home in Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska to collect his prize, he tries walking there instead. When his son David (Will Forte) learns of Woody’s foolish behavior, he agrees to drive him there just so he’ll shut up. After an accident forces them to take a detour through Woody’s childhood hometown, news of his good fortune spreads quickly, turning him into a local celebrity with his family and the other townspeople, despite David’s insistence that he hasn’t actually won anything.