‘Everybody’s Fine’: Family meeting

December 1, 2009

“Everybody’s Fine” offers one of the few Robert De Niro roles in recent memory that doesn’t equate acting with histrionics. De Niro is at the center of the film in one of the quietest performances of his career, yet one of the most moving – the kind that ought to draw Oscar attention.


Written and directed by Kirk Jones (“Waking Ned Devine”), adapted from a 1990 Giuseppe Tornatore film that starred Marcello Mastroianni, “Everybody’s Fine” is a compelling character study, constructed as a family drama (though it’s being sold in some commercials as a family comedy).


De Niro plays Frank, a retiree and widower who, as the opening credits run, buys the food, drink – and propane-fueled barbecue – to host a reunion with his children at his home, an event that never happens. The kids call to beg off at the last minute, despite a feast of steaks and wine that he’s put together.


So Frank takes the initiative and buys himself train and bus tickets to go visit them unannounced in their far-flung homes. All of his children are surprised – but none of them pleasantly, it seems. While they obviously have affection for their father, they just as obviously have no desire to spend time with him, each one cutting short his visit with obvious, even transparent excuses.


The daughter in advertising in Chicago (Kate Beckinsale) seems skittish. The son (Sam Rockwell) who is supposedly an orchestra conductor – but is found playing percussion with a touring symphony orchestra in Denver – also seems on edge. And the daughter who Dad thinks is a dancer in Las Vegas has pressing business. We love ya, Dad – gotta go.


In fact, as the film eventually reveals, they are keeping news from him. Their late mother, they eventually tell him, was the one they could be honest with, the one who would eventually figure out how to tell Dad when something was wrong. But Dad had high expectations that none of them wanted to disappoint. So when they did, they didn’t tell him; but now they have to. But how?


Jones finds the pathos and the humor in each of these encounters – the most moving being the flashes Frank has when he sees one of his kids for the first time. Suddenly he’s seeing them as they were – as 10-year-olds who he could still protect – instead of the adults for whom he can no longer provide the answers in life.


It’s those moments that move “Everybody’s Fine” into the hankie-clutching area, and I don’t mean that pejoratively. This is a film for adults, to be sure – adults dealing with older parents, adults dealing with adult children – families in general learning how to communicate when separated by time and distance, even in the age of being instantly in touch electronically.


The melodrama of the story – the secret the grown children are keeping from their father, but burning up the telephone wires with every night among themselves – is secondary to those moments of father-and-child interaction, which suddenly become so fraught with meaning or the wish for meaning. It’s also the device that propels this unassuming man out into a world he hasn’t seen much of, moving at ground-level to keep his own footing firm.


Frank is an anachronism, an analog man who has survived into the digital future. He has retired from a job working in a plant where he manufactured telephone cable, putting the polyvinyl-chloride coating on millions of miles of wire. Luckily he retired before the wireless age put him out of business – but not before the PVC he worked with permanently damaged his lungs.


Yet there is no rage in the character, another De Niro anomaly. His goal in life was to make a good life for his wife and children; now that they’re no longer his direct responsibility (though, really, when is that ever true of your kids?), he still wants to take care of them in whatever way he can.


That comes across in De Niro’s restrained but heartfelt performance. He’s the parent who can’t quite express his feelings, who wants to keep things on an even keel, even when it means ignoring the obvious. But there is both pain and pride behind the knowing expressions on De Niro’s face, years of finding the nugget of joy in the pile of disappointment and clinging to that positive little element.


The actors who play his kids – Beckinsale, Rockwell, Barrymore – all flesh out their scenes with De Niro with the same kind of self-control. Their scenes are about what they aren’t saying, rather than the small talk they’re forced to make. 


Life is full of missed opportunities; “Everybody’s Fine” is a moving reminder about the importance of taking advantage of every one of those opportunities that you can. After watching it, you may also want to call your dad and see how he’s doing.


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