Bruce Dern (left) and Will Forte star in “Nebraska.”

Bruce Dern (left) and Will Forte star in “Nebraska.”

By Michael Aushenker

If there’s one thing filmmaker Alexander Payne has mastered, it’s a sense of place. Payne, who thrives on creating dramas varnished with a thick layer of comedy, loves to exploit the geography in which his movies take place.

In last year’s “The Descendants,” Payne sold viewers on the charms of Hawaii, even as he actively tried to downplay its charms. In 2004, he put the Santa Inez Valley wine country on the map with his Academy Award-winning film “Sideways,” which has spawned actual “Sideways”-inspired wine-tasting tours from Santa Barbara to Solvang.

Originally from Omaha, Payne does not short-change devotees of his trademark travelogue settings in “Nebraska,” even amping up the bleak landscapes by shooting his latest in black and white (which unintentionally recalls the imagery adorning Bruce Springsteen’s 1982 same-titled folk album). Key locales —Billings, Montana, and Hawthorne and Lincoln, Nebraska — glisten with crisp open highways as blindingly white as the snow-layered landscapes. He almost makes the place look attractive.

“Nebraska” operates on a simple premise: Grizzled old codger Woodrow “Woody” T. Grant (Bruce Dern) is seemingly on his last legs. After he receives one of those notices in the mail claiming he has won a $1-million prize, Woody — delusional, drunk and seemingly on the cusp of dementia, clings onto the hope represented by his magic letter while youngest son David (Will Forte) humors the antsy senior citizen, accompanying Woody on his Interstate 90-bound quest from Billings to Lincoln, where the letter’s sender is located, to claim his million dollars. Quirky mayhem ensues.

As in 2002’s “About Schmidt” and Payne’s most celebrated wine country comedy, there are plenty of “sideways” detours, including stops at the hospital, Mount Rushmore and, most significantly, Woody’s childhood town, where David learns much more about his emotionally-absent father than he ever intended.

Yet the movie’s greatest emotional detours are caused by distortion: the way family members and old rivals change their tunes after actually believing Woody has fallen into a fortune.

Veteran actor Dern, fondly remembered for his turns in films such as “Coming Home,” (incidentally, daughter Laura Dern starred in Payne’s first feature, “Citizen Ruth”) makes a mighty comeback here and is already attracting Oscar buzz. However, “Nebraska” also benefits from solid performances from an ensemble cast, which includes Bob Odenkirk (of “Mr. Show” fame and, of late, Saul on “Breaking Bad”), and, most memorably, June Squibb as Woody’s crusty, hilariously blunt wife. Thanks to Squibb, “Nebraska” may contain the funniest cemetery scene in cinematic history.

The movie’s weakest link may be Forte, best known for “Saturday Night Live” sketches and disposable comedy (“MacGruber”). Payne valiantly tries to rehabilitate the erstwhile lightweight TV comic into a movie middleweight much as James L. Brooks did with Greg Kinnear in “As Good As It Gets.” For the most part, Payne succeeds, as the amiable Forte is able to stay out of the way and refrain from mugging.

Screenwriter Bob Nelson, a veteran of Seattle’s long-running “SNL” knock-off “Almost Live” (which also spawned Bill Nye the Science Guy), has resorted to Screenwriting 101 for his first major script: writing what he knows. The movie’s characters are exaggerated versions of family members and situations from his own Midwest upbringing, down to the short-circuiting conversations and a much-obsessed over air compressor. Following a Hollywood screening on Tuesday night, Nelson said he purposely kept Woody’s chronic disorientation — which resembles the onset of dementia fueled by alcoholism — vague. With Payne’s input, Nelson had refined his script numerous times in the decade it took for “Nebraska” to reach the screen. (Yes, Payne has been toying with “Nebraska” since even before “Sideways.”)

Falling somewhere below the colorful brilliance of “Sideways” and above earlier efforts such as “About Schmidt,” “Nebraska” achieves a “Descendants”-level of nearly top-shelf Payne. Just about every Payne movie hinges on oddball characters thrown together on some kind of mission, and “Nebraska” evokes elements from earlier works, from the jackass relations in “Schmidt” and “Descendants” to a Mark Orton score recalling Rolfe Kent’s buoyant instrumental soundtrack for “Sideways.” When it comes to a road-trip movie, Payne knows the route like the back of his hand.

Overall, Nelson’s world, tweaked by Payne’s Oscar-winning instincts, is a wryly-observed one. One might poke holes in some of Woody’s machinations since his short-term memory appears to have been obliterated and question why David is willing to submit himself to Dad’s futile quest, but ultimately this confection works as a character exploration in which a son gets to know his distant father in vivid color. Like any good road trip, it’s not so much about the destination as it is the journey itself.

“Nebraska” opens in limited release on Friday, Nov. 15, at The Landmark, 10850 W Pico Blvd., West Los Angeles.