Directed by Kirk Jones
For a holiday movie about a father reuniting his family, Everybody’s Fine is unexpectedly sad and mercifully sparing in its use of gags and clichéd heartstring-pulling manipulations. In light of Meet the Parents, it’s almost surreal to see Robert De Niro acting like a normal (even pathetic) father. The ensemble of stars makes for a surprisingly affecting family, even though (or, perhaps because) most of their shared moments are spoken into cell phones. Frank Goode (De Niro), a retired phone wire manufacturer and widower, heads out on a cross-country road trip to visit his four kids after they all cancel a weekend visit home. Kirk Jones (Waking Ned Devine) beats us over the head a little with the foremost metaphor and motif: wires. They put Frank’s kids through school and out into the world, and now, however precariously, they keep them all together. What’s refreshing about this family, though, is that it resembles a constant work in progress rather than the perfect multi-generational pyramid of so many Hollywood holiday films. The Goodes keep trying to act like things are good, even when they’re awful.
Frank’s cross-country journey makes up the bulk of the film, and Jones focuses as much on the brief stops with his kids as the long stretches in between. The people Frank meets—gazing out train windows, at 24-hour diner counters, in bus stations and while waiting for his kids—hint at a nation fragmented by crisis. Leave it to a British writer and director to craft a fleeting yet deeply felt portrait of America in a period of intense uncertainty. De Niro’s Frank is a potent vessel for a nation at a loss, an ailing old man suddenly disconnected from his kids after the death of the woman who served as his link to their worlds. There’s a kind of stubborn charm to his unwavering belief in the inherent goodness of family that reminds of Richard Farnsworth in The Straight Story. Everybody’s Fine isn’t that good, but it’s moving and pleasantly earnest in much the same way.
De Niro carries the film, and it’s nice to know he can still act without overacting (or playing a stylized version of himself). As his kids, Kate Beckinsale and Drew Barrymore are perpetually frowning and smiley, respectively, though Sam Rockwell manages a heartfelt balance of sublimated melancholy and tentative warmth. Unsure how to interact (or if they even want to) with a father from whom their mother acted as the perfect buffer, they all behave like spoiled, busy brats to avoid family duties. Frank’s eventual realization that he’s partly to blame for his kids’ thick skins and cold shoulders should be one of the film’s saddest moments, but Jones begins to lose his poise just as the film reaches its most profoundly sad stretch.
He increasingly resorts to tacky tricks that over-emphasize the revelations of the previous journey and deaden much of their impact. Most irksome are the cribbed flashbacks whereby Frank sees one of his adult children as a kid again for a few seconds. These become increasingly frequent as the film reaches the height of its emotional crisis, but over-reliance on that sleight of hand undermines the catharsis that is the family drama’s ultimate reward. It’s as if Jones had so little faith in his supporting cast’s capacity to convey emotion that he decided to replace them with over-earnest kids at the ensemble’s most crucial moment. By having Frank come to his epiphany while sitting around a picnic table with four kids during a heart attack-induced dream, Jones winds up condescending to his audience and treating us like kids. Much of the engrossing family dynamic that’s built up throughout Frank’s journey is squandered in the last chapter. The blissful Christmas resolution is so uncharacteristically sweet and hopeful that it could almost be a continuation of Frank’s dream. Aside from that rude awakening to holiday movie convention, though, Everybody’s Fine is a pleasantly nuanced and earnest vision of a family and nation struggling to keep it together.
Opens December 4