By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic
Moments of great truth partially compensate for the plodding predictability of director Kirk Jones’s “Everybody’s Fine,” a remake of Giuseppe Tornatore’s “Stanno Tutti Bene” (1990). But if your interest is prompted by the TV ads, beware. While marketed as a dramedy, there’s more dram here than edy. The few laughs are those of harsh realization.
Robert De Niro is widower Frank Goode, a variation on the working class hero Billy Joel lionizes in “Allentown.” Having spent a lifetime fashioning telephone wire coating to support home, hearth and his take on the American dream, he has damaged his health in the process. PVC, you know. But that’s OK, figures Frank. His kids are all successful.
Curious thing, though. About eight months after his wife’s passing, he happily preps for an en masse visit by the brood. There’s Rosie, the dancer played by Drew Barrymore; Amy, the Chicago advertising wiz portrayed by Kate Beckinsale; symphony conductor Robert, acted by Sam Rockwell; and David, the NYC artist. One by one they cancel.
Now, Frank really shouldn’t travel. Doctor’s orders are to just putter in his Elmira, N.Y., garden. But the guy is determined to see his kids. And although he opts for mass transit rather than a big RV, his embarking on the road to find out, as Cat Stevens would put it, is similar in ethos to the trip undertaken by Jack Nicholson in “About Schmidt” (2002).
There are places to go and people to see, all of them potential sounding boards for the world according to Frank. Like many folks who’ve reached a certain age, he needs to impart. There is rationalization to relate. Pointing out the window at the wire he protected from the elements, he regales other passengers with why and how he did it his way.
All of which gives Mr. De Niro, after a spate of mostly box office fluff, an opportunity to show that he still has the stuff of greatness. Not that the lead performance is entirely stellar. But, like the film itself, his evocation of one man’s raison d’etre musters patent honesty. We like Frank, and worry both about his health and what he might discover.
The first unannounced stop is the artist David’s digs. But a knock brings no answer at the walk-up apartment. Frank slides an envelope under the door. And while despondent that he missed his youngest, he is nonetheless heartened by the prominent window position his son’s painting occupies in an art galley downstairs. Oh well, on to the next child.
Thus, each leg of the journey offers Frank a chance to commune with his fellow man, a device that essentially serves as a chorus to the plot. But the screenplay, which borrows several notions from “Harry and Tonto” (1974), the modern granddad of the genre, shares neither the philosophical commitment nor the great characterizations of that classic.
For those who share with me and my dear departed Yorkie, Muffin, the sheer joy of going for a ride, note that we are teased with that vicarious possibility. But director Jones skimps in the travelogue and sociology departments. There are no breathtaking vistas or personae approximating the wit and fascination of a Chief Dan George to help the cause.
As it stands, the trek is used to perfunctorily move the story along, rather than as an engaging sub-plot unto itself. Likewise, ancillary personalities are only aboard to hear and react to Frank’s musings. Compelling undertones to supplement his travail don’t exist. A resulting lack of fluidity makes the film seem longer than one hundred minutes.
On the positive side, the dearth of interesting side business chillingly but informingly isolates Frank from the perceptions he has heretofore held as true. For the fact is, things are not exactly the way his heartfelt wishes made them seem. Half-truths pepper some rather unsettling actualities for this blue-collar cousin of Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman.
The rub is, Mom knew the skinny all along. So, in mining these divulgences about his children, it is apparent Frank was also clueless about the complete dynamics of his marriage, and therefore, his life in general. With his very being seeking new definition, the question now becomes, how will Frank Goode digest and adjust to his new world?
Though he is flawed to a fault, we are invested in Frank’s humanity. Pity is, the kids are little more than shadows, mere caricatures in service of the protagonist. Without dramatic complement or a script that allows Mr. De Niro to forsake the derivative saga and save the day with a show-stealing character study, “Everybody’s Fine” is just fair to middlin’.
“Everybody’s Fine,” rated PG-13, is a Miramax Films release directed by Kirk Jones and stars Robert De Niro, Drew Barrymore and Sam Rockwell. Running time: 100 minutes
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