In her review of the 1974 Paul Mazursky fillm, "Harry & Tonto," Pauline Kael noted that it was "the most difficult kind of comedy to bring off, because it comes directly from the moviemaker's feelings about life."
The exact same observation could be made of Alexander Payne's hauntingly spare and gnawingly moody "Nebraska," another "old-man-on-the-road comedy," as Kael also described "Harry & Tonto."
The tricky part, I think - and the reason Kael opined about the difficulty of the genre - is that these films aren't entirely comedies. There's also a melancholy to them. especially "Nebraska," which takes the risk of coming close to depressing its audience with its clear-eyed, sometimes harsh. view of a certain area of Middle America, one in the state of stasis.
Payne offers no surcease from his depiction of a people left immobilized by a paralyzed economy as he follows the plight of Woody (Bruce Dern, excellent), an old man who has deluded himself into think that he's the big winner in a millionaire sweepstakes and is intent on collecting his prize, much to the chagrin of snappish wife (June Squibb, also excellent), a woman who has had to develope a tough skin and alienating persona in order to get through life with a man who was always an easy touch.
Accompanying him on the pointless trip is Woody's younger son, David (Will Forte), who feels empathy for the old man, perhaps seeing his own beak future in him, and who sees this as one last opportunity to finally connect with his father. As wonderful as Dern is in the film, "Nebraska" really belongs to Forte, whose relaxed, naturalistic turn as a decent man is quietly powerful. His performance is entirely transparent.
The mood of hopeless that pervades "Nebraska" is sustained by the gorgeous, evocative black-&-white, wide-screen cinematography by Phedon Papamichael. It completes the picture.