Update: This review was based on what was in retrospect a screening plagued by a highly deficient projector resulting in unusually poor image quality. While I don't suspect that I'd ever come anywhere close to actually liking the movie, it's safe to say that my actual thoughts are more of a 6/10 than a 5/10, and this review should probably be disregarded.

Subsequent Update: Nope, saw it again, I absolutely stand by everything.

Among those who just don't like the work of director Alexander Payne - and given how much more I dislike The Descendants, his worst film, than I love Election, his best film, I suppose I qualify in that company - the commonest criticism you'll find is the charge of misanthropic superiority. The idea that he thinks himself both smarter and morally superior to his characters, and enjoys mocking them. Which is not an easy charge to refute, though I think it misses the point (and not least among the reasons I prefer Election to all other Payne films is that it's far and away the most overtly cruel thing he's done). What I have found, and this was made clear as a breaking dawn by his newest film, Nebraska, is that Payne wants to tell very humane, kind stories of people trying their gosh-damnedest to get by, only he doesn't really know how to do that without setting his likeable, nuanced, realistic protagonists in contrast to cartoon gargoyles in the supporting cast. And the supporting cast in Nebraska is broad and wicked indeed, sitting very uncomfortably and unpleasantly next to the film that Omaha native Payne thinks he's making and even occasionally does make, which is a subdued and melancholy love letter to his home state. And it is very, very clear from the evidence of the film that Payne loves Nebraska. It's Nebraskans that he apparently has a problem with.

The film centers around a father-son relationship, because American screenwriters (first-timer Bob Nelson, in this case; the first Payne film without a writing credit for Payne) have more problems with their dads than anyone else in the world. Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) is getting old and starting to enter the earliest stages of dementia; his younger son David (Will Forte) is the only one who's trying to deal with the old man's confusion and stubbornness with patience and love, while Woody's wife Kate (June Squibb) and elder son Ross (Bob Odenkirk, whom I'd have much preferred seeing in Forte's role) tend to view him as a burden, with his muddy intellectual state merely the last inconvenience of an entire lifetime of shitty husbanding and fathering. Before the film begins, Woody has latched onto an idée fixe, believing with religious certitude that the "You might already be a millionaire" contest ad he received in the mail is a guarantee of riches, and David, acting out of much more kindness than common sense - and the script doesn't seem to think of it that way, an early sign of the crippling intellectual inauthenticity to follow - decides to drive Woody from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska to humor the old man, who wants to claim his prize in person.

What follows isn't the road movie it promises to be. One night, Woody sneaks out to get drunk, and cracks his skull open. Rather than push the rest of the way, David decides to stop over in Hawthorne, Nebraska, the ancestral Grant hometown, where Woody and Kate first met; they stay there with Woody's brother Ray (Rance Howard) and sister-in-law Martha (Mary Louise Wilson), and their two awful sons Bart (Tim Driscoll) and Cole (Devin Ratray), and whatever mostly feigned sweetness the film has whipped up in the Woody/David car ride goes straight to hell as Nebraska parks in Hawthorne for almost the entire rest of the movie, as the deeply confused Woody manages to convince everybody that he's rich, and thus does everybody set themselves to the task of separating him from the largest share of his money that they can manage.

The consensus of opinion is against me on this, but Nebraska strikes me as a tiresomely mean-spirited film. And not because I read the film as Payne mocking his characters for being rural rubes - the people who see things like the taciturn gathering of Grant brothers to silently watch football and discuss, with great difficulty, the make of a 30-year-old car as being the filmmaker's attempt to make fun of the culture he's depicting are missing out on a very clear sort of affection that comes from familiarity. Yes, that is actually how people in the Plains States and Midwest live, and there's nothing about the film that implies this they're contemptibly unsophisticated as a result (it reminds me of the profound misreadings that still accrue to Fargo as showcasing the Coens' hatred for Minnesota). In terms of capturing the physicality, the pace of life, and the social interactions of life in the middle of the country - and while I have never lived in Nebraska, I've driven through it many times, and spent a great deal of time in similar communities - Nebraska gets everything right.

But the actions of the characters when they're called upon to be anything other than silent figures in Payne's Norman Rockwell painting of small town life reek of the filmmakers' misanthropy: the vast majority of people we meet are specifically painted as being craven idiots, or selfish bastards, or shrill harridan wives who do nothing but speak awful things about how much everyone is worse than they are (and how Squibb, lustily striking the one note of her character over and over again without modulation, can possibly be getting the amount of praise she's received thus far is going to be one of the great mysteries to me of this awards season). It paints a grossly one-sided depiction of humanity, reducing every character but David to basically one single character trait, and it's never a nice trait; if there's any insight into humanity, America, or anything else, I don't know what it might be, because neither the script nor the limited performances (the rapturous praise for Dern's deliberately glassy face and frustrated mumbling confuses me even more than the praise for Squibb does) do anything to suggest more than the most superficial themes and psychology. Some people are nice; most people are assholes, and they were even bigger assholes 50 years ago. Nebraska, ladies and gentlemen.

And all this I would feel less sour about, except the thing is motherfucking ugly as sin. Shot in black-and-white by Phedon Papamichael, putting in his best claim yet to being my least-favorite working cinematographer, the film is openly aping Peter Bogdanovich's exercises in monochrome from the early '70s without having any reason to do it; Payne has suggested in interviews that the motivation was primarily, "nobody said not to", and while you can squint and come up with something about the lens of nostalgia and revisiting the past and such, that's meeting the movie so much more than halfway that you're waiting in its kitchen for it to finish getting ready. Besides, even if it had a discernible purpose, it's still the crappiest-looking B/W I have seen in many years: smudgy images in which no effort has been made in the lighting or physical design of the movie to translate a full-color world into a greyscale one. A few landscape shots are dark enough that it has a certain dramatic look, but otherwise, this is a nonstop horror of smeary grey-whites bleeding into muddy grey-blacks, looking like Papamichael and Payne just hit the "destaturate" tool in Photoshop and called it a day.

I'd say, in fact, that the vile cinematography is enough to make this my least favorite Payne movie, but after a couple of days reflection, I think I should walk back from that. For one thing, its physical depiction of the bars and stores and fields of the Plains is close to flawless, and it succeeds on the "essence of being on a road trip, watching the scenery" front better than any movie since Cars. For another, whenever the film consists of absolutely nothing but Forte and Dern sitting along, Forte trying with (deliberately) painfully forced enthusiasm to find any means to bond with his distant dad, it actually feels like it has something to do with real human emotions, and the actors have a very nice rapport with each other that is natural and engaging. And to be fair, more of the movie is just Forte and Dern than it is the screeching parade of harpies around them, so strictly by the numbers, I probably like something around 65% of the movie. But that 35% leftover is a goddamn agony, and it makes the whole thing seem much worse than it probably is.