EVERYBODY’S FINE (Dir. Kirk Jones, 2009)
A few months ago when I first saw the trailer there was a brief instance that I thought that this could be Robert De Niro’s ABOUT SCHMIDT – a powerful portrait of an iconic actor in his autumn years. That instance was incredibly brief mind you, because as the preview played out the glossy schmaltz it began to look more like De Niro’s LAST CHANCE HARVEY – a cute though vapid vehicle for a once vital actor in his autumn years. Well, sadly the latter is what we have here.
The opening shots show De Niro vacuuming his carpet, mowing his lawn, getting his grill out of the garage, etc. Watching this I was struck but the question: who wants to go to the movies to see Robert De Niro doing household chores? We even follow him to the grocery store to see him ask a clueless clerk about wine. He’s getting ready for Thanksgiving with his kids he explains, awkwardly clarifying that they’re all grown up and that he’s not actually serving children wine.
That's the type of detail that's meant to endear De Niro to us. His Franke Goode is a recently widowed and retired and without a doubt entering into a very needy zone of existence so when he learns that none of his family is going to make it home for the holiday there's no other course of action but for him to hop aboard buses and trains and go to them. His doctor warns him against the trip, because that's what most movie doctors do, but there's no stopping this strained father Frank.
We learn from his chatting up a fellow passenger on the train to see his son in New York that De Niro had a career in coating telephone wire from coast to coast. This gives the film the excuse to have many shots of telephone polls and cables as we hear the voices of his offspring (Drew Barrymore, Katie Beckinsale, and Sam Rockwell) making calls to one another. They discuss in hushed tones a fourth sibling who is in some unspecified trouble and how they should keep it from Dad.
Since that's the son that De Niro first goes to visit he comes up short in NYC, so then he's off to Chicago to see his advertising exec daughter (Beckinsale). One gimmick the film has is that when he first sees his kids, he sees them as that - kids - so children actors stand in for their older counterparts for a few shots before they embrace. This is certainly making the point that he never dealt with them as grown-ups before but it still comes off as an artsy gimmick.
After an tense dinner with Beckinsale, her husband and son, De Niro heads off to Denver to see his classical musician son (a very reserved Rockwell) who turns out not to be the conductor he told his father he was, but a percussionist. Rockwell doesn't appear to want to spend much time with his father so then we're off to Las Vegas to visit with his dancer daughter (Barrymore) who may not be who she's claimed to be either.
EVERYBODY'S FINE was based on an 1990 Italian film (STANNO TUTTI BENE) which I haven't seen but I bet has a lot more emotional weight than this well meaning but drab adaptation. None of the characters or situations take hold so there's nothing to truly care about. A 3rd act dream sequence involving De Niro confronting his offspring - the children actors mentioned above - tries its damndest to pull on the heart strings but the strings don't seem to be attached to anything. An all too happy ending feels like it was tagged on so the film would match its misguided marketing as a holiday film.
It's been a long time since the New Hollywood era in which De Niro ruled as an electric engaging entity in such landmarks as MEAN STREETS, TAXI DRIVER, and RAGING BULL (among others). Of course the man has long mellowed into the mainstream in commercial comedies and forgettable cop dramas but I think most film folks believe he could still bring it if given the right material. Until that happens though I guess we'll have to deal with watching De Niro do the dishes and take out the trash, instead of stalking the streets thanking God for the rain to wash the trash off the sidewalk.