(by Dustin Putman
Having not seen the 1990 Italian film of the same name, one expects it must have at least been a little bit tougher in its treatment than the Americanized remake of "Everybody's Fine." Earnestly acted but predictable and cloying, the film wobbles in limbo between affecting scenes that feel honest and don't push too hard, and others that drip with manipulation and pandering artifice. By the end, the latter unsavory sentiments win out. Writer-director Kirk Jones (2006's "Nanny McPhee") means well enough, but "Everybody's Fine" proves that sheer good will does not always equate to a successful outcome. Article continues below
Ever since the death of his wife eight months earlier, retired widower Frank Goode (Robert De Niro) has struggled to come to terms with the changes his life has presented him. When his plan to have all four of his grown kids home under one roof again falls through—they all cancel at the last minute—Frank packs his bags and decides to pay each of them a surprise visit. His first stop in New York to see artist David is a wash when his son never shows up at his apartment. His next stop is Chicago, where advertising exec Amy (Kate Beckinsale) lives with her husband (James Frain) and preteen son (Lucian Maisel). Frank senses not everything is as Amy has told him, a recurring theme that rears its head again in Denver, where son Robert (Sam Rockwell) is not working as a conductor, but as a—to Frank—lowly percussionist. Likewise, when Frank finally arrives in Las Vegas to see dancer daughter Rosie (Drew Barrymore), it doesn't take a psychic to figure out that the lifestyle of success and luxury she is presenting to him is but a flimsy façade shielding her true self. And so the question is posed: how come Frank's children were so open and honest with their mother, but not with him?
Playing like a more treacly version of 2002's "About Schmidt," "Everybody's Fine" is the story of a lonely, aging man whose journey toward seeking out meaningful human contacts leads him to some key revelations about the kind of father he was, and still is. Always wanting the best for his kids while putting pressure on them to succeed, they, in turn, have seen no choice but to twist their realities to fit his expectations. As depicted in the film, though, Frank doesn't come off as any more wildly overbearing than the average father. Thus, their constant lies to him, discovered gradually throughout, stop being about protecting his feelings and instead come off as cruelly and unnecessarily deceitful. There are phone calls between the siblings, heard during scene segues, where they discuss the missing David's whereabouts, and talk about how they quickly sent Frank on his way because they didn't know how to deal with him, but all that this adds up to is presenting Robert, Amy and Rosie as decidedly selfish and irresponsible.
The individual visits to New York, Chicago, Denver and Vegas make up the majority of the narrative, intersected by the passersby he meets on the way, but there is nothing terribly remarkable about any of them. For the most part, they are repetitive: father and child chat, possibly have dinner, and are revealed either during or after to have fibbed about everything from profession to dwelling to even having a baby. In recent years, Robert De Niro (2008's "Righteous Kill") has begun to make a mockery of himself through a lot of poor or over-the-top roles. Scaled back and asked to play an average, identifiable man at a crossroads in his life, De Niro excels. The screenplay doesn't always hold up its end of the bargain, tossing in a sickness—Frank is instructed at the beginning not to travel due to health issues, and later must go without his prescribed pills—and a particularly false scene in the third act where he stands over his wife's grave and verbalizes the mistakes he's made and all that he has learned from his experiences. Blatantly spelling out the arc of the character is tantamount to assuming every viewer is one IQ point below being a total idiot.
And yet, there is a fair share of good to be found. Along with De Niro's fine turn, Drew Barrymore (2009's "Whip It") strikes a tender, regretful note as daughter Rosie, arguably the one who has been most dishonest with her father, but also the one who outwardly cares the most about him. The cross-country photography by Henry Braham (2007's "The Golden Compass"), mostly seen via buses and trains, is attractive, especially when paired with a nice selection of songs as it is here. A late scene set in a hospital room between Frank and the young version of David (Chandler Frantz) is touching in spite of the obvious manipulation at work. In contrast, the Yuletide-set denouement lets Amy, Robert and Rosie off the hook too easily and heaps on the happy-go-lucky suds. Frank deserves his kids, but do they deserve him? Based on the evidence, it's a toss-up. Too safe and too syrupy, "Everybody's Fine" never quite adds up, or lives up, to what it is striving for.