I was not entirely looking forward to Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, mostly because I worried that the movie, about an old man taking stock of his life on a Plains-state road trip, sounded an awful lot like Payne’s last movie about an old man taking stock of his life on a Plains-state road trip — 2002’s About Schmidt, in which Jack Nicholson delivered a performance so depressing that the movie theaters should have spiked their sodas with Wellbutrin.
Payne has a unique style — a blend of comedy and tragedy, satire and realism — that tends to sharpen, in good ways and bad, when the setting is his native heartland. (He was born in Omaha, and still keeps a home there today.) Sometimes this sharpening produces something peerless, like Election, his near-perfect 1999 film about the battle for a high-school presidency. But sometimes it leaves a nasty aftertaste — a mix of condescension, disappointment, and misanthropy that can feel like the too-harsh judgment of a made-good native son.