December 06, 2009

Everybody's Fine

Grade: C +

Director: Kirk Jones

Starring: Robert De Niro, Drew Barrymore, Kate Beckinsale, and Sam Rockwell

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Running Time: 1 hour, 40 minutes

Everybody’s Fine succeeds in evoking a spirit of family reconciliation and yuletide sentimentality. Outweighing all of that, however, is an overriding sense of déjà vu.

Robert De Niro plays Frank, a retiree trying to adjust to a life of menial solitude, unmoored from the outside world by his wife’s death eight months earlier. Disconnected from his grown children geographically and emotionally, Frank embarks on a road trip to visit and, hopefully, reconnect with them. Casual observers may note similarities to Alexander Payne’s About Schmidt, including De Niro and Jack Nicholson’s splendidly restrained performances. Officially, Everybody’s Fine is a remake of Giuseppe Tornatore’s 1990 Italian drama, Stanno Tutti Bene, starring Marcello Mastroianni.

This update from director Kirk Jones (Waking Ned Devine) amps the mawkishness to nearly oppressive levels, piling angst over growing old atop family dysfunction and the deaths of loved ones. Indeed, only the performances by the A-list cast keep this from dissolving into Hallmark Hall of Fame holiday-themed treacle.

Frank is the sort of everyman who shops for expensive wine at a supermarket and haggles over the price of everything from gas grills to Christmas trees. Clad and accessorized in nondescript browns, he also epitomizes certain men – especially older and working class – who are laden with tender feelings toward loved ones but unwilling or unsure how to express them. The way he greets his children is illuminating: His daughters with awkward hugs and his son with a handshake.

As the film opens, Frank is eagerly preparing for his four children’s first visit since his wife’s funeral: David the painter; Robert the musician (Sam Rockwell); Amy (Kate Beckinsale), a hard-charging Chicago ad executive; and Rosie (Drew Barrymore), a Las Vegas dancer. They all cancel at the last minute, however, prompting Frank’s cross-country odyssey.

Until the end, the script is furtive about the actual reason the children choose to stay away. But, it strongly implies throughout that they were far more connected to their late mother than their supportive but demanding father. In one affecting scene, Frank visits Robert during orchestra practice and, even in the midst of their reunion, is unable to stifle his disappointment that Robert has chosen to play percussion instead of pursuing a career as a conductor.

Each child carries skeletons and imperfections he or she is reluctant to share. But, one problem is that the children are not allowed to be honest with their father; instead, Jones utilizes a bizarre, clumsily dream sequence to help Frank – and the audience – finally puts the pieces together.

The actors carry out their roles well, and De Niro’s interaction with each costar is pitch-perfect. However, there is a disconnect between the children’s dismissive, sometimes callous treatment of their father and the onscreen Frank. We are merely informed about Frank’s domineering parenting without being provided any glimpse into that part of his persona (unlike, for example, Royal Tenenbaum). The result is an incomplete narrative that engenders a festering dislike for Frank’s children, who probably don’t really deserve our malice.

Of course, this lack of context is probably intentional since it tidily clears away emotional debris for an obvious, tear-jerking plot turn and a Norman Rockwell-esque denouement. Everybody’s Fine is supposed to be an ironic affirmation. Trouble is, by the time Christmas (and the closing credits) arrives, it’s hard to detect the irony.

Neil Morris

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