By Richard von Busack
WITHIN ITS LIMITS, Everybody’s Fine is an honorable holiday entertainment, sweetened by a happy ending. Robert De Niro expertly downplays the lead role of an upstate New York widower trying to investigate what became of his family. The affectionately viewed American landscapes (mountains by day, lonely streets by night) fit in with the holiday mood of yearning, displacement and dashed hopes.
Everybody’s Fine is a loose remake of the Giuseppe Tornatore/Marcello Mastroianni film of 1990 about an aging man’s realization that his dreams of his family’s prestige are an illusion. Over the titles, De Niro’s Frank is puttering around the lawn of his house in Elmira, N.Y. He is a widower getting ready for a summer barbecue, and he is so slightly out of it that he’s inflating a kiddy pool: he’s forgotten he has no grandchild under the age of 5. Unfortunately, every single one of his four children cancels out of the family reunion via the telephone, citing work and other stresses. Left in solitude, Frank comes up with a bad plan: he’ll surprise his four children in the cities where they live. He’ll travel by land; his lungs, scarred from years with working with polyvinyl chloride, won’t let him fly.
Frank arrives in New York City, but David, his eldest son, is nowhere to be found—the only evidence the son has been there is one of his paintings in the window of a local gallery. Moving on to Chicago via Amtrak, the old man interrupts the life of his high-powered advertising executive daughter Amy (Kate Beckinsale in a very unglam performance) and his grandson Jack (Lucian Maisel). There isn’t room for Frank there, either, so he heads off to Denver, where he’s told that his son Robert (Sam Rockwell) is conducting a symphony orchestra. En route, Frank is proud to see the telephone wires passing his train window, because it was his job to oversee the weatherizing of cables with PVC. He doesn’t know that the buzzing wires are carrying worried messages between his children. They have the word out that the old man is trying to surprise them. Worse, the missing elder son, David, is in serious legal trouble in Mexico.
Everybody’s Fine, then, illustrates the proverb that one father can support four children, but four children can’t support one father.
De Niro looks well—he’s not doddering. An aura of anachronism surrounds this performance that goes beyond the brown Members’ Only jacket he wears throughout the film. Frank is naive about how to conduct himself in cities; he gets mugged helping a junkie sleeping in an Amtrak station. How long has this remake been in development? The Internet doesn’t figure in this story; if Frank had done a little Googling, he would have seen what his children were up to and learned that some of the stories he had heard about their successes were falsehoods.
What saves this drama is the low-keyness. The rapport between Frank and his grandson Jack is particularly well played; neither is intimidated by the other nor overwhelmed by any big emotions. In the Denver scenes, Frank tours a vintage symphony auditorium, where it turns out Robert is a soloist instead of a conductor, and director Kirk Jones gets some pleasure out of the gilded wooden surroundings there, too.
In Las Vegas, where Frank stays with the Cordelia of the bunch, the film is at its warmest. Drew Barrymore plays daughter Rosie, picking Frank up and making him welcome, although her own story of success is just as false as the other offspring’s. Barrymore’s anti-glamour and the cozy richness of her flesh are, as always, appealing. And after watching a likable, untroublesome man being passed off from child to child, it’s only human to want to see someone welcome him. However, when you watch someone as comfortable-looking as Barrymore, it’s hard to imagine why she would lie to a working-class father.
We’re wrapping up a decade of diminished hopes and expectations, a decade when a father might find any child “fine” who has a job and a roof over their head. De Niro’s efforts to make Everybody’s Fine appealing also mean that the role was beefed up for him as a movie star. Frank is virile enough to fight off the mugger, for instance, and he gets flirted with by a truck driver played in a cameo by the superb Melissa Leo. We don’t see something essential in Frank—the push in him that made his children decide that they would rather lie to him than admit that they haven’t lived up to his expectations.
This sounds like I’ve torn the film apart. Actually, I was amused by its essential dignity: the light conversations on a train with a stranger, the rich welcome Rosie gives her traveling father. British director Jones (Waking Ned Devine) is a little myopic when it comes to class in America—blue-collar men don’t necessarily push their children into the arts. Mastroianni’s character in the original film had some cultural pretensions: I had remembered him as a retired professor, having seen the film 19 years ago, but it turns out he was a civil servant with a grand manner.
One cuts holiday movies slack—and Everybody’s Fine makes the sensible choice to wrap the action up around snow, Christmas trees and good old C-9 Christmas lights. We will forgive the film’s open ends when we ponder the family and how it inexplicably grows apart.