Payne, working from a sharp screenplay by newcomer Bob Nelson, delivers his familiar themes of wasted lives, derailed dreams, fizzled families and off-kilter but meaningful road trips in this father-son journey and serving of heartland pie.
The setting is the title state, where Payne set his earlier films (including “Election”). The cinematography is stark black and white this time.
Bruce Dern plays Woody Grant, a cantankerous, 70-something, mentally declining alcoholic who lives in Montana with his bitter wife, Kate (June Squibb).
Lately, Woody has taken to shuffling down the highway en route to what he says is Lincoln, Neb. There, he plans to claim the million-dollar sweepstakes prize described in a junk letter he received.
The road trip begins when Woody and Kate’s younger son, David (Will Forte), an electronics salesman, decides to drive Woody to the sweepstakes office in the Cornhusker State, where Woody (and Payne) grew up.
Their adventure includes a visit to Mount Rushmore, which Woody says looks “unfinished.”
In Nebraska, the pair stay with one of Woody’s brothers in a small town. Soon, Kate arrives with older son Ross (Bob Odenkirk), and a family reunion occurs.
Things darken when Woody tells locals about his sweepstakes win. As in “The Descendants,” greed turns friendly folk nasty. Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach), Woody’s menacing former business partner, is among the many people who claim to deserve some of the winnings.
As Payne and company serve up folksy phraseology, cornball home decor, dimwit yokel nephews and unfashionable plaid, Payne’s brand of satire can border on condescension.
But as is usually the case with Payne, the barbs are sharp, the antics are funny, and the heart between the jabs helps the film succeed as an affecting, human story.
A passage in which a fumbling David and Ross try to steal back an air compressor their dad claims Pegram appropriated from him years ago is madcap perfection, among other comic highlights.
The cast, assembled with trademark care by Payne, proves wonderfully in tune with Payne’s naturalistic, acerbic, melancholy and goofy multitone palette.
Dern, with little dialogue, creates a character who is initially hard to access, but earns the audience’s concern as he displays his buried humanity. It’s a riveting, beautifully natural performance by the veteran actor.
Forte, best known for his comic work on “Saturday Night Live,” is convincing in straight-man mode and believable as Woody’s functional but dispirited offspring.
Squibb, whose Kate, at one point, stands in a graveyard and disparages the departed beneath her feet (“I liked Rose, but she was a whore”), steals the show.
Starring Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Bob Odenkirk
Written by Bob Nelson
Directed by Alexander Payne
Running time 1 hour, 55 minutes