Since Alexander Payne made Election back in 1999, he seems to have taken a different direction in the tone of his films, away from more malicious, mean comedy to something more likeably honest and simple, which resulted in About Schmidt at the utterly winning Sideways. Then after a small break, he returned with The Descendants, which felt like it was aiming at the same targets as Sideways with a much weaker bow, and this year he has Nebraska, which perhaps is slightly stronger, but only by microscopic measurements. In Nebraska, Bruce Dern plays an old man who believes a letter from a magazine company saying he's won a million dollars, and tries to get to Lincoln, Nebraska and collect these winnings, whilst his wife June Squibb gets irritated with his futile journey, eldest son Bob Odenkirk tries to find ways to take a backseat in everything for the sake of his news anchor career, and underachieving son Will Forte finds that helping his father do a very silly thing might be the push the entire family needs to make change in their lives. The prize is fake, but when the extended family and the town they live in find out, it becomes the biggest news around, and everyone gets wrapped up in the half-truth.
Being a quiet little film, the plot takes a long time to be discovered in its entirety, I think a lot of the second sentence there occurs around the middle of act two, and that's a real issue with Nebraska. It's about being slow and sweet, but to do that we have to enjoy spending time with the characters, and Dern, Forte, Squibb and Odenkirk just aren't given anything of value to work with, Squibb plays the vulgar granny-type role, the kind of person who says the f-word with a beat for audience laughter, and flashes a grave. Odenkirk, who seems to have been given the direction to act badly here, has to play both a bit of a dick and a likeable, charming man, which are always at odds with one another, and only when the film wants something funny/sweet to happen. It's really lazy writing that asks characters to turn on a dime just to make things work, rather than find ways to organically create these moments. And that's what Nebraska finds itself doing whenever it's not just footage of people sitting in chairs watching an off-screen sports match. Which makes up a lot of the film.
Whilst it's clear that Dern does a solid job as second lead (Not the actual lead), Will Forte is as close to standout as this film offers, not like anything he's done before anywhere, Forte is quiet and honestly endearing, elevating a lot of the material where he can, but is often squashed by the disappointing lack of comedy, heart or pace. The film runs some 2 hours, where at 90 minutes it'd be a stretch, and released as black and white makes for a rather lacklustre appearance, much like Frances Ha earlier this year, the film lends itself not to that style, ugly amounts of either grain or digital noise (I fear Payne may have just dug out a digital camera and shot the film in a weekend or so) and the lack of strong contrasts lead a lot of the film to be kinda grey-ish. The content of the film has no relevance to the style, it's all for the sake of Payne slowly pushing his head further up a certain body part that, since Sideways, has become his great goal.
Nebraska is a tedious film, not without merits, but so much of the film can be so easily written off due to any kind of quality writing, direction, cinematography, editing. It's a slow film, and one that has no right to be so long and so boring. As a drama it lacks drama, a comedy without laughs, an awards film without anything to award. Nebraska is a dud, a critically acclaimed dud.