Everybody's Fine has cuteness and wholesome charm in its very DNA. It was written and directed by Kirk Jones, who made the twee Waking Ned Divine, and it's a remake of a 1990 Italian film by Giuseppe Tornatore, who also made the sentimental Cinema Paradiso. The risk was that Jones' film -- about a widower reconnecting with his children -- would be unreasonably sappy, but he pulls it off OK, thanks in part to a grounded and sincere performance by Robert De Niro.
De Niro plays Frank Goode, a retired blue-collar worker whose wife died recently, leaving him with the realization that she was the one their children confided in, not him. Frank has invited the four Goode offspring, now living in different parts of the country, to come home for a weekend, only to have them each cancel for various reasons. So what the heck: He'll take some buses and trains -- that's how old people travel, you know -- and pay surprise visits to each of them.
Frank is the kind of good-natured coot who tells strangers what he did for a living and what he's doing now, and shows them pictures of his children. It's a good change of pace for De Niro, who has lately been a buffoonish old man in comedies and a scary old man in dramas. Here he gets to play a pleasant codger of the sort that actually exists in real life and that you wouldn't mind associating with. It isn't a showy performance; rather, it's notable for being un-showy -- solid, honest, and sweet. That alone makes it out of the norm for De Niro.
Frank's son David is an artist in New York City, but he's not there when Frank shows up, so Frank heads to Chicago to see Amy (Kate Beckinsale), an advertising executive with a vast modern home, a husband (Damian Young), and a teenage son (Lucian Maisel). Robert (Sam Rockwell) is a musician in Denver, and Rosie (Drew Barrymore) is a dancer in Las Vegas. Everywhere he goes, Frank finds his children surprised to see him, somewhat glad, but skittish. They're each hiding at least one secret from him. In between, we catch snippets of phone calls between them, urgently discussing the whereabouts of David and what to do about Dad.
At times it feels like Jones is trying too hard to make us feel sorry for lonely old Frank; it helps that De Niro refuses to go too far in making Frank seem pathetic. (That didn't stop a few women sitting near me from going "Awwww!" several times, though. I can only imagine how emotional -- and audible -- their reaction would have been if De Niro had actually angled for their sympathy.) But aside from a few cheap laughs (like the fountain in Frank's back yard that looks like a peeing cherub), most of the comedy is sharp and most of the drama is plausible. Nothing is contrived -- well, I mean, the whole premise is contrived, but within that framework the story adheres to realistic interactions between siblings and parents.
Is it anything special? No, not really. It's one of Those Movies, the kind about families reconnecting and airing their dirty little secrets and exploring their relationships. You know the kind. There's at least one every holiday season. But it's not a bad example of that kind of movie, an agreeable and even touching little snapshot of family life.
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Eric D. Snider (website) might have deducted one-third of a letter grade for the cheesy title. Maybe.