Nebraska

In cinemas February 20

Director Alexander Payne, responsible for The Descendants in 2011, returns for Nebraska, a film about the homecoming of an aged car mechanic, Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), with beleaguered son David (Will Forte) in tow. Nebraska, like The Descendants, accrued several Oscar nominations, and has that same pleasing quirk and unsubtle characterisation that explains, if not justifies, its propping-up by the Academy.

The retro-styled posters suggest a contemplative and transcendent experience, as does the pleasantly languid black-and-white photography, but it’s only marginally more compelling than his previous films. Dern is perfectly lost as a doddering alcoholic, obsessively chasing a fake million-dollar payout. His trip is carried out merely to pacify him in his twilight years. Pitiful though Woody is, his re-acquaintance with old and duplicitous faces brings up old wounds that make him less so. Forte’s performance as the straight man in a town riddled with financial belly-ache and faulty remembrances make this more pointed, but the story is presented in a listless fashion that belies any strong power in its themes.

While he gets the social nuances of rural homesteads down, Payne still plays right to the back of the room, with moments of neon-lit catharsis and contrived crudeness executed in the safest, most obvious way possible. In The Descendants, it was George Clooney’s daughters swearing like troopers, and now, poor June Squibb as Woody’s wife – nominated for Best Supporting Actress, due perhaps to sheer dogged commitment – has to laboriously repeat the same cheap gag where she potty-mouths past friends and flames. This and other parts feel like cries for attention in an otherwise unremarkable movie. It’s not aggravating, and Payne has some beguiling touches up his sleeve, but like many Oscar favourites, it’s mostly ephemeral.

3/5

Words by Dominic Barlow