Film Review: Everybody’s Fine (2009)

At the turn of the century Robert De Niro went to sleep in regards to his professional life. Throughout the 2000′s he would slumber, drifting in this zombified state through cartoon camp (The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle), listless drama, (Hide and Seek, Men of Honor) and abrasive self-parody (Meet the Fockers, Analyze That). However, something changed as the first decade of this century came to a close: De Niro seemed to wake up. The restless experimentation that defined his early career (especially in his work with De Palma and Scorsese) was reborn, although to far less significant results.

Everybody’s Fine (which will be released on BluRay on October 16th) symbolizes this new stage in De Niro’s career. The groundbreaking thespian from the 70′s, who was driven to transform himself physically and emotionally through a (possibly insane) devotion to his method acting technique is probably never coming back. However, films such as What Just Happened?, Stone and Everybody’s Fine showcase a more respectable and less flashy De Niro, free from some of the egotism and listlessness which dominated much of his recent output.

Everybody’s Fine puts the actor in Grandpa De Niro mode. Gone is the hair-trigger temper and explosive violence, replaced by a chronic health problems and an interest in his children that feels surprisingly genuine. De Niro is Frank Goode, a blue-collar retiree whose affinity for gardening is only equaled by his propensity to be a “worry wart.” Following the death of his wife Goode plans a reunion visit for all of his children to return home to upstate New York. However, when each one of his four off-spring pulls out of the trip Frank decides its time to shake the dust off of his bones, put his bum ticker to the test, and head out on a cross-country journey to see if each one of his kids is, in fact, doing just fine.

After this set-up Everybody’s Fine turns into what at its worst is an episodic travelogue and at its best a moderately involving family melodrama. De Niro is strong here,  refreshingly nuanced and starkly contrasted to his more over-the-top recent performances. The problem is that De Niro’s character, while played well enough, is simply not that interesting of a guy to anchor an entire movie. As Frank Goode traverses the spectacular American landscape and visits his adult children (played by Kate Beckinsale, Sam Rockwell and Drew Barrymore respectively) the script never really delves into the psyche of its central character. Comparisons of this movie to the 2002 Alexander Payne film About Schmidt have been frequently expressed. This has been to the detriment of this film. While they are indeed structurally similar, Jack Nicholson’s Warren Schmidt is given a much closer examination and the audience gains a great deal more insight into the regrets a parent might have over their parenting or what it might feel like to consider yourself a failure.

As Frank Goode’s three adult children, Rockwell, Beckinsale and Barrymore are highly competent albeit unremarkable in their brief appearances. Similar to De Niro’s character none of the children are all that intriguing. One can tell that probably the greatest appeal of this project was the potentiality of emoting against one of the great American actors during his twilight years. Due to the film’s episodic structure none of these performers are able to register in a memorable way. Probably the most successful of the vignettes revolves around Frank’s meeting with his daughter Rosie, played by Drew Barrymore. This sequence is the most thematically complex because it adds some much-needed dimension to De Niro’s character and helps explain the dynamic he has with his children.

Taking the directing and adapting duties (yes, Everybody’s Fine is a remake), Kirk Jones is not able to able to imbue his film with any sort of distinctive or coherent vision. The film is photographed beautifully enough but the proceedings often times feel rather superficial. Even the film’s constant audio/visual motif, which consists of lovely shots of the telephone wires criss-crossing America, fails to really communicate anything monumental about the story or its characters. If it accomplishes anything it would be evoking the simple irony of De Niro’s Frank (whose job was covering telephone wires with PVC-tubing and helping to facilitate the nation’s communication) being, you guessed it, not a great communicator with his children.

Finally, the new BluRay release doesn’t add much to the film in terms of storytelling quality. The aesthetics however, particularly the majestic environments that Goode travels through, really do get an additional pop from its BluRay presentation. The Special Features portion of the disk doesn’t live up to their name, as the features are anything but special. All that it includes is a so-so “Making Of” featurette about the production of Paul McCartney’s song for the film (I Want to Come Home), in addition to several deleted scenes that were mercifully omitted.

Everybody’s Fine is a worthwhile experience for someone who is a big fan of its leading actor. It is an intriguing little spectacle because De Niro has rarely played this type of role before. Still, there isn’t enough dramatic material here to attract anyone who isn’t morbidly curious in late-career moves from one of the medium’s legends. Watching it you might respect De Niro’s more toned down performance, but also find yourself wishing for  Johnny Boy, Travis Bickle, or hell, even Jack Byrnes to appear, and give this film a much-needed blast of vitality.

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