Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Review of Everybody's Fine

Sorry this is so late. Between the holidays and a full plate of freelancing (I'm editing and writing two monthly community magazines now), it's been absolutely nuts. This is the first day in a while where I'm not drowning in obligations.

The following review appeared in ICON and is reprinted with permission (Thanks, Trina). Summation: The decline of Robert De Niro continues.

Everybody's Fine is marketed as warm and friendly fare—and just in time for the holidays. The movie's poster presents its stars smiling in a group photo, a Christmas tree looming in the background. It features a new song from Paul McCartney, who hasn't done anything smacking of rebellion since The White Album.

Watching a movie with an optimistic bent isn't always a bad thing, but Everybody's Fine unloads the ugly truth about families while assuring us everything will be fine. It's limp and indecisive, the kind of movie where the conclusion comes and you groan in disbelief on how screenwriters have become Little League coaches: every movie, no matter how undeserved, gets a happy ending.

Robert De Niro plays Frank Goode, a retired suburban dad with nothing but free time and lots of space. His four grown-up kids are out of the house and living busy lives throughout the country. His wife used to keep track of everyone, but with her passing, Frank feels the kids slipping away. When none of them attend the reunion he organizes, Frank hits the road and visits each child unannounced, health problems and an itinerary loaded with bus and train rides be damned.

Each child is surprised, almost taken aback, by Frank's arrival. They can only grant him quick visits, making vague excuses as to their limited availability. Something is clearly wrong, especially since Frank spends all day in New York and can't track down his artist son. The remaining kids (Kate Beckinsale, Drew Barrymore, and Sam Rockwell) are trying to do just that as Frank crisscrosses the country, unaware of his missing son's plight.

Everybody's Fine, based on the Italian film by Giuseppe Tornatore (Cinema Paradiso), has an interesting concept that's mired in bad decisions, starting with the casting. I'm thrilled that De Niro isn't playing another cop or ironically funny tough guy, but doddering is not the man's forte. Here, he's reluctant to let his guard down, a la Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt or Dustin Hoffman in Last Chance Harvey, so we get the De Niro version of an old man. It doesn't help that director/writer Kirk Jones loads him with old man cliches (e.g., overwhelmed by technology, overly talkative) and a wardrobe straight from The Sunshine Boys. De Niro doesn't give a bad performance per se, but he never rises above the codger caricature he's been assigned.

Given his past work (Nanny McPhee), Jones is just the wrong guy for this movie. For material like this, you need someone who can let events unfold naturally, who can let the performances and silent moments speak for themselves. A director with a velvet touch like Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain) would have been perfect. Jones's sunny, cram-it-all-in approach is flawed because we never truly know Frank's relationship with his kids. Instead, we see that he views them as being forever young, which paints Frank as, well, a man with little emotional depth.

However, getting into that bitter family history would require revealing hard truths, and that's something Jones doesn't do until the very end, when they're served on a plate of dreamy confession with a heaping (and undeserved) portion of instant closure. Aside from being insulting, the last stretch teeters on stupidity: Frank can't operate his own suitcase. Now he understands why his kids are so miserable?

Jones wants to offer us a rosy look at an unhappy family, but that's not possible given the movie's dramatic framework. (It'd be different if it were a wacky comedy.) You can't pass off progeny this good-looking— seriously, Frank's wife must have been a bona fide babe—slap difficulties on them and think you have an honest character drama. You can't show De Niro wheeling his pathetic suitcase around the nation and pass that off as a look at getting older.

Everybody's Fine offers us lots of short cuts and expects us to accept them as legitimate life lessons earned by Frank and his family. It's the perfect movie to reflect the dark side of the holiday spirit: slick, commercialized, and oblivious. [PG-13]

No comments: