Several months ago while Quentin Tarantino promoted Inglourious Basterds, he mentioned that he might only make a few more films before he retires because, as he said, he didn't want to make "old man" movies. If anyone is unclear as to precisely what an "old man" movie is, they need look no further than Everybody's Fine, Robert De Niro's latest film, about a father trying to reconnect with his adult children after the death of his wife.
De Niro, once an indisputable fount of actorly integrity and hard work, has in recent years played a series of characters that either demanded little of his oft-discussed commitment, or exploited his persona as an intimidating figure both on and off screen. And while the character he plays here indicates a return to the kind of character work that made him a screen icon, there's no denying that the film itself is the cinematic equivalent of career achievement award, which is why Everybody's Fine is well-done and effective but too treacly to be truly powerful.
Based on the 1990 Italian film by director Giuseppe Tornatore (who also did Cinema Paradiso), Everybody's Fine follows Frank (De Niro), a septuagenarian retiree who lives alone in his family home after the death of his wife several months ago. When all four of his children bail out on a reunion weekend, Frank decides to go and visit them instead, starting with his youngest child David, who isn't at home. Travelling by train and bus because of a heart condition, Frank then surprises Amy (Kate Beckinsale) before going on to see Robert (Sam Rockwell) and Rosie (Drew Barrymore). Despite Frank's best efforts to make nice, he soon discovers that his children are harboring various secrets from him, eventually leading him to reconsider his role in their lives, and his responsibility in making them the people that they are now.
Suffice it to say that dysfunctional families are the stock and trade of contemporary dramedies, but few of them are able to operate with any subtlety, and most are as broadly reassuring as a get-well card. Director Kirk Jones, who previously helmed Waking Ned Devine, has a particularly light touch rendering the relationships between Frank and his kids, but unfortunately their problems have become boilerplate drama by now, which is why their examination and resolution feels quite so clichéd. That said, Frank is by no means a monster; in fact, he's quite a supportive old softie. But De Niro seeds him with a kind of impatient expectation of success that is immediately recognizable to any person who's ever felt like they occasionally wanted their parents to be a little less supportive.
What works best is the film's introduction of Frank, a guy as desperate to please his kids as one imagines they were to please him at one time. Vaguely miserable and lonely after the death of his wife, he initiates conversations with strangers and sings the praises of his kids' accomplishments, and finally embarks on his reunion tour as a way of (hopefully) fulfilling all of the pride that he has stored in him about their accomplishments. The kids, meanwhile, each react with varying degrees of irritation, dismissal, and finally candor, trying to present the same perfect image he's come to expect, soft-pedaling the reality that intrudes upon his hopeful fantasy, or wholeheartedly disavowing him of that delusion.
Although the film advances towards an epiphany Frank has about all three, De Niro manages to be charmingly out of touch for much of the movie, stopping just short of being a doddering geriatric but finding recognizable dimensions of a parent who's slowly becoming as much of a burden as a support system. Appropriately touted as De Niro's best bid in some time for Oscar glory, the gifted performer does some of his most effective work in years, especially after a few too many self-parodies and send-ups of his persona, but again the character and the film feel too much like a lifetime achievement honor to give his performance a sense of independence or identity that it needs to qualify as iconic as some of its predecessors.
As his kids, Beckinsale, Rockwell and Barrymore all contribute increasingly exasperated and equally effective turns, but the familiarity of the story and the stacked deck against sympathy for their problems makes them seem less grateful than the audience might think they should be. But ultimately, this is really an "old man" movie, not because De Niro is advancing in age and perhaps less game for the kinds of transformation he underwent in his earlier years, but because the character's reflection upon his life and his impact on the world seems to mirror that of the actor himself. That of course doesn't make the movie bad, but it does rob it of some of its resonance. In which case, Everybody's Fine is an apt title because it perfectly suits the success level of the film, but it still counts as a disappointment because the collective talent on screen leads one to expect something not just fine, but great.