Bruce Dern and Will Forte star in Nebraska. (Paramount)

Alexander Payne, the American director of Sideways and About Schmidt, provides a real return to form with Nebraksa. Starring venerable Hollywood actor Bruce Dern, this road movie is a sweet and savage examination of family ties and smalltown life in the American Midwest.

Dern, best known for 70s films Coming Home and Silent Running, gives perhaps his greatest screen performance here as Woody Grant, a senile alcoholic who after receiving a competition letter in the post stubbornly insists that he has won $1m and only needs to travel 900 miles to collect it from Lincoln, Nebraska.

Will Forte is alongside him as son David, a meek but loveable loser like his dad, who partly from a desire to get away from work and relationship woes, and partly a need to know more about his father, agrees to drive him on this fool's errand and in his own words, "let him enjoy his fantasy a little while longer". Stopping on the way at rural small town Hawthorne, the trip takes us in to Woody's past as we meet relatives he hasn't seen for years and friends he'd soon rather forget.

It's a film full of the familiar awkward, but very very funny exchanges that Payne has become so well known for, as Will gets to know the yokels that make up his relatives - people whose main interests are cars, sports and sitting around watching TV all day. But yet Payne, who himself grew up in Nebraska, imbues the movie with a real romanticism, capturing this slice of small town American life in beautifully crisp black and white.

After his last movie, the sanitised studio product The Descendants, it's great to see Payne stage a sort of indie rebellion, making a movie on his own terms, with no major stars attached, and with his signature clearly written all over it. But this is a trip we've taken before, and Payne's American odyssey this time is hampered by the hallmarks of the familiar.

The docile and depressed old man that Dern plays is just a different version of Jack Nicholson's character in About Schmidt, with the strained family dynamic repeated throughout many of his works. Fans of Payne will delight in another dish of his dry humour, but there's nothing new or surprising in Nebraska. A, dare I say it, sideways move for the filmmaker - I can't wait to see him move forward with his next picture.


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