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Director Alexander Payne has made some remarkable films—clever comedies like Election and heartfelt dramas like The Descendants. But while his latest film, the road trip drama Nebraska, seems to set out in an intriguing direction, it ends up taking a long and rather irritating detour.

Nebraska stars Saturday Night Live’s Will Forte as David Grant, a lonely home theater salesman from Billings, Montana. When David’s aging father, Woody (Bruce Dern), receives a letter in the mail claiming that he’s won a million dollars in sweepstakes prize money, David joins his mother, Kate (June Squibb), and his brother, Ross (Bob Odenkirk), in trying to convince him that it’s just a scam. But Woody is determined to travel to Nebraska to pick up his prize money—so, eventually, David agrees to take him.

Along the way, though, the two travelers get waylaid in their old hometown, where family gathers and old acquaintances try to get their hands on Woody’s winnings.

Nebraska isn’t a sweet tale of father-son bonding—nor is it a wacky road trip comedy (like The Guilt Trip). It’s a simple, stripped-down, black and white film about a couple of guys who desperately need a change of scenery. David’s girlfriend just moved out, and he’s not sure where that leaves him. Woody is an aging alcoholic with a bitter and abrasive wife whose favorite pastime appears to be verbally abusing him. He’s stubborn and cranky and quite possibly senile. They’re both pretty sad, pathetic characters—and, unfortunately, things don’t get much better for either of them.

Despite the film’s dismal and rather hopeless undertones, though, there’s still something captivating about the relationship between these two characters. So it’s a shame that the film sets the relationship aside for long stretches of time, focusing more on the duo’s side trip through their small hometown. Here, the average resident’s age appears to be approximately 82, making the film suddenly feel like a two-hour trip to an all-you-can-eat buffet in Florida. The characters here are either shrill and batty or slow and dim, and the acting is often painfully awkward.

Granted, the film does have its share of amusing moments—moments when you can’t help but laugh out loud at the craziness of it all. And it’s during those moments when Forte seems the most comfortable. It’s clear that he’s way out of his element during the dramatic moments—and he never really manages to pull them off.

Somewhere in here, there’s a charming film. It manages to shine through a bit during the last few scenes—but, for the most part, the charm is hidden behind lengthy asides and beneath irritating characters. There’s something delightful and dramatic to be found here—but you’ll have to dig through some pretty unpleasant stuff to find it.

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