Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Travelin' Dad: Everybody's Fine

Retired after a life of coating cables in PVC, his kids now scattered across the country, his wife’s death still a fresh wound, Frank Goode (Robert De Niro) has nothing but time. The prospect of a rare gathering of the surviving clan has him unloading wads of cash on a new barbecue, heaps of filet mignon, and fancy wine he knows nothing about. It’s all the more heart-wrenching then when all four of his kids call to cancel at the last minute. Even at this early stage in
Everybody’s Fine events conspire to gut Frank—and the rest of us—emotionally. But Frank’s a trooper. He packs a small suitcase and sets out to visit his offspring whether they like it or not. So we have here a road movie of sorts, one where each stop yields fresh revelations about Frank’s ostensibly perfect family, the lot having long ago made a pact to withhold from dad all their disappointments, shortcomings, or personal tragedies.

Writer/director Kirk Jones’ remake of the 1990 Italian tearjerker employs some shrewd devices to deliver exposition while sticking closely to Frank’s point-of-view. The telephone wires Frank passes as he’s whisked around the country courtesy of Amtrak or Greyhound emit conversations between his children informing us of troubles unknown to him, and the blur of nostalgia that has Frank “see” his children in their pint-sized versions when they reunite in the present, building up to a dream sequence in which present-day Frank converses with a bunch of ten-year-olds about precisely those matters his adult kids won’t discuss. This last bit could have been something strange and interesting, yet Jones’ execution of these devices is across the board pretty corny—almost as corny as the light gags about Frank’s inability to use chopsticks, or Dario Marianelli’s sappy score.
Everybody’s Fine is a movie determined to keep its aim safely within range of the middlebrow, its protracted denouement letting no opportunity to tie up every last possible knot, revealing a conspicuous paucity of faith in its audience’s imagination. Yet for all that, you know, the movie really works.

This is partly due to De Niro, so relaxed in his own skin, never crowding his fellow actors in any given scene, so deft with conveying bottled-up feelings, so touching in the simplest moments—the way he stifles a broader smile when he coerces his eldest daughter to say out loud that she’s a partner in his ad agency; his understated playing of the scene where he phones his own house just to hear his dead wife’s voice on the answering machine. But the greater credit is due to the essential wisdom of the story, which for all its schmaltz never rings false, at least not in the ways that really count. It’s a story about confronting that powerful myth that all your hard work will ensure you some autumnal reward in the shape of your children's successes. A lot of us have fathers like Frank, working class guys who push too hard, who we can’t bear to disappoint. Some of us
are Frank—though I have a harder time seeing this aging widower going out to see this sort of movie. The point is that Everybody’s Fine isn’t very artful, but it is truthful, and quite moving. Sometimes that’s fine enough.

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