115 minutes/Opens tomorrow/***1/2
The story: Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), crotchety and perhaps delusional, is convinced that a junk mail promising a million-dollar prize will actually pay off. To the consternation of his son David (Will Forte), Woody sets off on foot from his home in Montana, bound for Nebraska, 750 miles away, to collect the prize. Unable to dissuade his father from making the journey, David opts to take the old man there by car, to keep him safe. En route, they stop by Woody's former hometown of Hawthorne, where they encounter friends and relatives who hear of the windfall.
In a time when "indie comedy" is code for what it means to be a sexually frustrated adolescent or an adult hipster having a quarter-life crisis, this relaxed, easygoing work feels like a throwback to an age when it was possible for a movie to be considered a smart comedy without it being about neurotic 20somethings or the libidos of unfeasibly articulate teenagers.
The small-town inhabitants that Woody Grant (Dern) and son David (Forte) meet on their drive across the flat Midwest recall the earthy Scottish villagers of Local Hero (1983), or the folks living in Cicely, Alaska, in the television show Northern Exposure (1990-1995).
The difference is that the comic tone here is dialled several notches lower than either of those works. Director Alexander Payne (Oscar-nominated for Best Director for this and for The Descendants, 2011) bleaches the characters of rural exoticism or eccentricity.
Working with a script from television writer Bob Nelson, making his feature debut, Payne clearly favours rustic authenticity over anything else.
Still, there are low-key comic observations scattered throughout, such as in a bit in which a family reunion of sorts takes place, despite everyone being glued to the television. In another scene, rural men find their manhood in their ability to drive from one point to another in the shortest possible time.
But what Payne seems to be mainly interested in is not comedy, but poignancy, a mood he achieves with wide shots of the old man limping towards what he thinks is his final answer, set to the new-age-meets-bluegrass acoustic guitar of Mark Orton.
Paynes amplifies the melancholy by shooting in black and white.
Dern's turn as Woody, for which he has been nominated for Best Actor at the Oscars, is flinty, inscrutable and sad, but he makes his late-career resurgence in a film filled with memorable performances.
June Squibb, playing his wife Kate, is a pungently refreshing presence in all this bleakness, fully earning her Best Supporting Actress Oscar nod. Saturday Night Live alumnus Forte, known for playing goofy supporting parts, is also excellent as the hapless David trying to make a connection with an unreachable father.
If anything, Payne, who came to fame with an Oscar nomination for Sideways (2004), tries too hard at keeping it all tastefully downbeat, to the point where monotony sets in.
If he had allowed himself more leeway, it is likely the audience might have had more fun too.