Giuseppe Tornatore’s 1990 dissection of the chasm between a father’s hopes for his children and the reality of their lives is given an American makeover in Kirk Jones’s “Everybody’s Fine.” The result, unfortunately, is as obvious and contrived as the original was.
Robert DeNiro, in one of the “regular guy” roles he occasionally takes on—only to prove that he isn’t suited to them—stars as Frank Goode, a retired maker of land-line telephone cable and a recent widower with a bad ticker that prevents him from flying. When his four grown children all back out of coming home for a rare visit, he decides to disobey doctor’s orders and jump on a train to surprise each of them in turn.
So we see Frank first trying to link up with son David, the youngest, an artist with an apartment in a rather run-down New York City neighborhood. But David’s never in. So on he proceeds to Chicago, where he surprises daughter Amy (Kate Beckinsale), her husband and son. But their hectic schedule (along with Amy’s obvious marital difficulties) quickly sends Frank west to pop in on Robert (Sam Rockwell), a musician whom he thinks is an orchestral conductor but turns out to be merely the timpanist—and, it seems, just about to start a tour.
These three rushed stops, at each of which the children whom he finds at all try to get rid of their father as quickly as possible, have overtones of Ozu’s “Tokyo Story,” but none of that film’s depth. But they’re punctuated by hurried conversations among Amy, Robert and younger daughter Rosie (Drew Barrymore) in Las Vegas, Frank’s final stop, about David, who’s disappeared in Mexico and whom they’re trying desperately to find. There are also periodic flashbacks to the children’s youth in which they’re shown as kids being sternly encouraged by their father to live up to his high expectations for them.
When he gets to Vegas, Frank finds Rosie, a showgirl, far more welcoming than her siblings, with an impressive apartment. But cracks soon appear in her tales of success, too. And since Frank’s running low on his heart medicine—he lost most of it when he was mugged in one of those train stations—he goes against doctor’s orders and flies back home for an epiphany concerning how his fatherly dreams for his children haven’t been realized, and how much his own attitude might have contributed to their problems.
As the heavy-handed emphasis on telephone lines and hushed conversations indicates, “Everybody’s Fine” is basically about the difficulty of communication between parents and children, and the strains that can cause in their relationships. But if miscommunication is the theme, the picture communicates it all too bluntly. Following in Tornatore’s footsteps, Jones’s script lacks subtlety, spelling things out so as to leave very little for the viewer to contribute; and visually he opts for devices—like those dissolves of the grown children to their kid states—that come across as mawkish. The result is a distinct disappointment after his previous picture “Waking Ned Devine,” an amusing bit of Irish whimsy that captured some of the spirit of the old Ealing comedies.
Nor does Jones show a sure hand with his actors. De Niro is one of the greats, of course, but he’s never been comfortable as a common man, and it shows in a certain fussiness that he employs in an effort to give the character some distinction. As the kids, Rockwell does his slacker routine without much imagination, Beckinsale lays on busyness to deflect from the fact that Amy’s no more than a sketch, and Barrymore projects little more than a wan sparkle. In fact, the best performance probably comes from young Lucian Maisel as Amy’s son Jack, with whom De Niro settles down for a pleasant grandfather-grandson sequence. But it doesn’t last long.
Technically the picture’s better than the material really deserves, with Henry Braham’s camerawork particularly strong. One problem, though, has to do with the time in which the story’s set. It appears to be contemporary, but there are curious details, like a relative paucity of cell phones (Frank is always using land-lines) and a conspicuous lack of airport security when he boards a plane toward the close. Perhaps the intention was to situate the film in a kind of chronological limbo, but the haziness proves infectious, and like those visions of his cute-as-a-button kids that periodically replace his grown children, “Everybody’s Fine” ultimately disappears in a puff of melodramatic smoke.