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Alexander Payne Has Mastered the Midwest. Now He Must Move to the Big City.

Paramount Pictures

Alexander Payne does not make mistakes, and that would seem to be his only serious handicap or restraint. But he has so many delicious virtues of taste, precision, and modesty. He has tragic instincts but will not succumb to melancholy. He is reluctant to let sex or violence overwhelm his work, especially in igniting combination. He not inclined to trust his heroes or villains; he has made a habit of wayward, awkward or unreliable characters. Give Payne an obvious movie star—like Jack Nicholson or George Clooney—and he looks for their lost ordinariness. He understands the disappointment in family connections, and the calm failure in life. After six films he has yet to visit our major, international cities for more than a glimpse. He prefers the provinces—Hawaii, Santa Ynez, Iowa, Nebraska—and proceeds as if it is our folly to have written those places off to attention deficit disorder. Not that he insists on them being vivid and neglected treasures. Neglect is Payne territory, a plainness that reminds us that he was himself born and raised in Omaha, and keeps going back to the dark fields of the republic.

Put that package together and really there is no one like him, and Payne is only in his early fifties. Not that he beats the drum for himself, in the way Tarantino (the same age, more or less) cannot work without proclaiming his naughty boy novelty. Payne is one of America’s quiet and persistent treasures, like maple syrup, the St. Louis Cardinals or the apparent tranquility of our deserts. So it’s no surprise that such an avowed homeland naturalist should now make a film called simply Nebraska.

In parched black and white, this is the story of how Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), a grump in Billings, Montana, receives a glib sweepstakes letter and elects to believe he has won $1 million. So he gets his son (Will Forte) to take him to Nebraska where the prize waits to be collected. The son knows the bonanza is flim-flam but he makes the trip, if only to attempt a kind of bond with his father. Short of their destination, Lincoln, they find the part of Nebraska where Woody lived once and where his major creditors are gathered and waiting.

That’s all it is. Paramount wanted the film in color, but Payne stuck out for black and white (for the first time) and won, perhaps because The Descendants (his previous film) was nominated for best director, best actor and best picture, won the Oscar for adapted screenplay, and grossed nearly nine times what it cost. And because he had no intention of making Nebraska pretty. None of which is exactly plain or normal. There was also talk of star actors playing Woody—the usual bunch— but somehow or other the project ended up with Payne’s first thought: Bruce Dern, 77 now, calmer than he used to be on film, but querulous, flighty, saner than he acts, yet unmistakably dangerous. Dern looked like a star in the making in the late ’60s and early ’70s: to see him and Nicholson as brothers in Bob Rafelson’s The King of Marvin Gardens (1972) is not just a treat; it’s a sign that the two pals were neck-and-neck as actors on the make. Well, Dern’s Woody won the acting prize at Cannes this year, an award that Nicholson had received in 1974 with The Last Detail. What kept you, Dernsy? Jack might ask.

I said that Alexander Payne makes no mistakes, and that is true here. This is a road picture, but beautifully self-contained and sure-footed; it’s a story about the dream of money that has no faith in that gimmick; it’s a study of our heartland where the pulse beats steady but slow. It’s funny, but not for laughing out loud. It’s poignant, but don’t start crying. In short, it is humane, truthful, unexaggerated, and what we need and deserve. Filmmakers so wary of melodrama hardly exist in the United and impacted States. You’ll enjoy the film. You’ll be grateful and appreciative. There will be more nominations here. But Payne is 52 already.

Nebraska seems to me a better film than The Descendants, just because Dern is an authentic no-hoper. His eyes are cloudy with disbelief and the elimination of charm. Beset with problems in the islands George Clooney was always just a touch too assured to be true. That was a story about money and family and it was blessed by Shailene Woodley’s performance as the older daughter (Payne is as tender to young people as he is to the old). But how could Clooney suffer the common problems of life in a fair fight? I admired the film, but didn’t the state of Hawaii deserve more anger and manic response over the way we have treated it? Payne’s heartland is never touristy or comfortable, so much as patiently diseased. But he doesn’t remark on that or seem to admit the crisis of this country.

I recall his first films, Citizen Ruth (1996) and Election (1999). In the first, Ruth—played by Laura Dern—seemed out of control as drug addict and mother. But the satire saw her handling the system like a card-player. Election was better still (I think it’s Payne’s funniest and most disconcerting work) because its high school student governance contest—comic and grotesque—really served as a national metaphor. And the prissy monster, Tracy Flick (Reece Witherspoon), was repressed in every way: Her sexuality was buttoned up, and her fascism was virginally coiled. But the headlong dementia of that plot—and the impact of the Matthew Broderick character being stung in the eye by a bee—was giddy with escaping wildness. I always think of Tracy Flick as a nascent Margaret Thatcher, and an intriguing balance of the Reese Witherspoon who had done the outrageous Freeway (1996) but would be Legally Blonde (2001) very soon.

There’s some hint of a Preston Sturges in Payne, and I would love to see him take one of his best characters—the lovable, dumb young men (Chris Klein in Election and Nick Krause in The Descendants)—to New York or Los Angeles, or even Beijing, and turn that dangerous heartland innocence loose on a sophisticated world. Payne is so talented, and clearly he has had the wit to make a shrewd and productive career. ( He was a neighbor to Warren Buffett for years.) But I wonder if he needs to explode, and that may mean risking mistake. Payne is the son of restaurateurs—suppose one of his young chump heroes opened a restaurant in a big city, became a celebrity, and then nearly destroyed that cockamamie business? What I'm imagining is an initial naturalism that becomes increasingly spiced with surrealism, gallows humor and a crazed health inspector who resembles Tracy Flick. She's married now, and calls herself Tracy Flick-Fluck.