When it comes to movies, there seems very little emphasis on or interest in portraying small town America. Generally, the films we see are set in some metropolis that's supposed to be New York or L.A. Very rarely is much thought or attention given to what goes on in the many places outside of these two cities (granted, not very much goes on at all). Still, it is a testament to Alexander Payne's nuanced style of filmmaking that he would be the one to bring Midwest life to the forefront. Payne, born in Omaha, is one of the few writer-directors willing to give a story and its characters the time they need to develop and, not necessarily arc, but at least have a revelation or come to terms with something unpleasant.
For Woody Grant (Bruce Dern, who has been having a come-up since appearing in Django Unchained), that unpleasant something is realizing that a million dollar sweepstakes notification he received in the mail is completely bogus (a word I try to use apart from talking about Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey). His son, David (Will Forte, in a role that proves he's so much more than an awkward drag queen in 30 Rock), is saddled with the responsibility of constantly fetching him whenever he tries to make the trek from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska in order to collect his winnings from the sweepstakes headquarters. Woody's wife, Kate (June Squibb), is all too wary of his behavior, clinging to the help of her other son, Ross (Bob Odenkirk, who comes across surprisingly un-Saul like), to back her up on putting him into a home.
David, the most sympathetic to the real reason Woody is chasing the ghost of a good thing, insists that they indulge him in his fantasy at least for a little while. With his own slew of problems to contend with, including working a dead end job as a salesman at a home entertainment and electronics store and his girlfriend recently moving out of their apartment, David is all too eager to take a trip elsewhere for a simple (though minimal) change of scenery. The dynamic between David and Woody is archetypal in terms of the new school penchant for emotions colliding with the old school predilection for stifling every possible feeling. Because Midwestern men's communication skills are, to put it mildly, sparse, it's fascinating to watch Woody's latent sentiments come through as the plot progresses.
Another element of Nebraska that highlights the ways of "the common man" is the modesty of the primary characters' desires in life. Woody's sole interests after getting a million dollars are to buy a truck and a compressor. A soulless bourgeois East or West Coaster would find far more financial damage to cause with that kind of money. But modest desires stem from modest expectations, which is what many Midwesterners have been conditioned to adhere to (a history of scarcity has instilled too much fear in them not to). Shot in black and white, the ennui and grimness of such an austere existence shines through in the cinematography and stylistic nature of Nebraska.
While audiences might assume that a story about the Midwest is, invariably, a story about the American dream, Nebraska is, more than anything, a story about the value of acceptance, contentment and being satisfied with what you have and what you're realistically able to materially gain. Payne's gift for striking the perfect balance between the tragic and the comic is what makes all of his films seem timelessly resonant. For the themes of Nebraska will always be relevant in human existence. At least average, non-famous ordinary man existence.