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Reason to believe

The small and medium towns in the Midwest and the Great Plains aren't so different from any other part of the United States. Half the people don't talk much, while the other half chatter to fill the silence. It's a time-honored cliche according to Garrison Keillor, but there's truth in it. And there truly are a million or more men in this country like Woody Grant, the tight-lipped subject of Alexander Payne's latest film, "Nebraska."

Throughout Bob Nelson's well-ordered screenplay, Woody's wife, sons, distant relations and old, dubious friends from back home drop bits of biographical detail regarding the addled, irritable, melancholy soul at the movie's center. We learn he's a lifelong alcoholic; a Korean war veteran who saw too much carnage; and not much of a father. He may also have early-onset dementia.

And now, having received a magazine subscription flier in the mail with his name on it, he believes himself to be the lucky winner of a million-dollar sweepstakes, and he is determined to travel from his home in Billings, Mont., to Lincoln, Neb., to collect the grand prize. Woody, given to wandering off, finds a traveling companion in his son David, whose recent breakup has left him in a state of stasis. Eventually, Woody's wife, Kate, whose first sentence on screen is "You dumb cluck!" and his "go-getter" TV anchor son meet up with the men for an uneasy reunion in Hawthorne, Neb., where Woody and Kate grew up and met.

"Nebraska" is less a movie than a feature-length comic ballad. Much of the film is gently sardonic. Some of "Nebraska" feels thin and slightly misjudged — the broadly comic stuff with the idiot cousins, for example. The script digs only so far underneath anyone's skin. But Payne, shooting in widescreen black and white, elevates the material with images of serious and paradoxically ordinary beauty. This is a movie that treats the lonely street outside a dingy small-town tavern with the same care as Payne shows his actors, beginning and ending with Bruce Dern.

Dern won the best actor prize at the Cannes Film Festival this year for his portrayal of a man who never amounted to much. Dern does the least overt and most affecting work of his career. His comic timing remains shrewdly unpredictable. Will Forte plays David, a sad sack eager to find out who's in there, behind his father's glazed eyes.

Dern and Forte are both effective, but my favorite performances in "Nebraska" belong to the women. As Kate, June Squibb feels authentic and true. In the small role of the Hawthorne newspaper owner and editor who knew Woody when, luminous Angela McEwan works wonders in between the lines. Payne knows gold when he sees it: The close-up of McEwan near the end speaks volumes and evokes many things, wordlessly.

MPAA rating: R

Running time: 1:50

Opens: Wednesday

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