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Paramount Pictures
Bruce Dern, left, and Will Forte star in “Nebraska,” which opens today.

Movie Review: Director deftly paints Midwest portrait

‘Nebraska’ ****

Just two years ago, Alexander Payne was releasing “The Descendants,” his lush, melancholy ode to family ties and America’s most far-reaching polyglot frontier. With “Nebraska,” he once again delves into family dynamics and self-deception, this time training his keen eye on a part of American culture that, in terms of the popular imagination, has been virtually hiding in plain sight.

Disposing of Red State clichés, condescending superiority and trite sentimentalism, Payne brings rigorous, often goofily amusing insight to this portrayal of his home state (he grew up in Omaha and still lives there part-time).

Only someone with intimate knowledge of the Midwest’s singular cadences, social codes and confounding emotional stew (er, covered hot dish) of aggression and politesse could pull off something as masterful, meaningful and poetic as “Nebraska.”

And perhaps only Bruce Dern could inhabit the character of Woody Grant – the alcoholic, cantankerous, cotton-haired lead character of this alternately sad and funny picaresque. Much like the pitchfork-wielding stoic in his reverse namesake’s most famous painting, Woody is something of a cipher, his speech rarely veering from taciturn responses like “Guess so” and “I suppose.”

But as “Nebraska” unfolds – when Woody enlists his son David (Will Forte) to help him collect the million-dollar prize money promised to him in a sweepstakes letter – the traumas and tiny heartbreaks of Woody’s life emerge, drip by drip.

In many ways, “Nebraska” hews to the classic buddy road picture, with the mismatched Woody and Dave setting forth on a journey of mishaps, chance encounters, hilarious high jinks and – of course – filial bonding. But thanks to Bob Nelson’s lean, tone-perfect script and Payne’s tender execution, “Nebraska” never feels patronizing or facile.

Sure, it’s hilarious when Woody and Dave arrive in Woody’s depressed home town of Hawthorne and Dave immediately endures a mocking interchange with his two huge, corn-fed cousins about how long it took him to drive from Montana. Later, Payne and longtime cinematographer Phedon Papamichael film Woody, Dave and their relatives as a human still life of resignation, a tableau of eight white guys sitting around talking about cars, staring at an unseen television and watching the game.

These moments inject welcome notes of deadpan levity, but they never devolve into ridicule: Payne has filmed “Nebraska” in wide-screen black and white, lending the prairies, blighted main streets and faded taverns an artful, gelatin-print air of pastoral stillness.

When Woody’s wife, Kate (June Squibb), arrives on the scene, the mood loosens considerably – she’s a foul-mouthed, sharp-tongued battle-axe who skates dangerously close to the caricature of the Swearin’ Grandma.

Luckily, Nelson and Payne seem always to know instinctively when to pull back and change course, either sending Woody and Dave to another stop along their odyssey or soothing the waters by introducing an artifact or figure from Woody’s past, like a former business partner played by Stacey Keach, or Angela McEwan’s newspaper editor who is, true to the actress’s name, angelic.

It’s Squibb’s Kate, with her brutally frank pronouncements and ribald gossipy asides, who’s the scene-stealer of “Nebraska.” And Forte, best known as a comic actor from “Saturday Night Live,” makes an impressively restrained dramatic debut as a man who’s equally longing to connect and reflexively wary. (Bob Odenkirk, lately of “Breaking Bad,” plays Dave’s anchorman brother, Ross.)

For all of its superb supporting performances, though, “Nebraska” is Dern’s movie, and he carries it with a sure-footed authority and focus utterly belied by Woody’s own knock-kneed hobble and abstracted, spaced-out demeanor.