I’ve seen movies targeted at 12-year-old boys, at young couples, at horny teenagers — at virtually any demographic you care to name. But I can’t recall before now coming across a film designed to tug at the heartstrings of the very specific audience for which Everybody’s Fine is intended: adults who haven’t quite come to terms with the fact that their children have themselves become adults.
The extent to which writer-director Kirk Jones’ riff on Giuseppe Tornatore’s 1990 weepie Stanno Tutti Bene will appeal to you is in direct proportion to the years you’ve clocked as a parent. The young and old, I suspect, will find it of limited interest. A large number in between will find themselves blubbering into their Orville Redenbacher.
Robert De Niro turns in a nicely restrained performance as sixtysomething widower Frank Goode. I can’t think of a role in which the actor’s trademarks are less in evidence. Frank is retired from a job in which he breathed toxic fumes every day making PVC coating for telephone cables. Because of a lung condition, his doctor has put him on daily meds and strongly advised against traveling, especially by plane. This proves a problem when his kids call at the last minute to say they can’t make it to the family reunion he’s planned.
Determined to reconnect with his far-flung brood, Frank decides to pack a bag and pay them surprise visits, crisscrossing the country by train and bus. More often than not, however, he’s the one confronted by the unexpected. On his journey of discovery, what Frank discovers is that none of his kids have been completely honest with him about their lives.
One’s an artist who’s MIA in Mexico. The three siblings know he’s in trouble but have hidden that fact from their father. Kate Beckinsale is a Chicago advertising hotshot whose home life is not as picture perfect as she’s portrayed it. Drew Barrymore is a Vegas dancer with secrets she doesn’t realize Frank detects. Sam Rockwell has perhaps the most touching and in-depth interaction.
Frank arrives believing his son is the conductor of a Denver symphony orchestra, only to find him in the back row banging the bass drum. Seeing this as a sign of failure, Frank offers generic encouragement. It’s symptomatic of his own failure as a father that he doesn’t really hear his son when Rockwell explains that he’s fine with his life, happy to see the world and get paid good money for such a low-stress gig.
The father’s problem is that he’s playing catch-up. When his kids were young, he pushed a little too hard and wound up pushing them away. His wife was the one they went to and who guided them into adulthood. Consequently, they’re still children in his eyes — often literally so, with the help of a device Jones employs throughout the picture. Frank will be speaking to one of these grownup people wrestling with grownup issues, and, suddenly, through their old man’s eyes, we see them as he remembers them at 7 or 8. Sure, it’s a sappy, sentimental ploy. That doesn’t mean it’s not an emotionally powerful one. Whatever sort of parent you’ve been, you’re likely to relate to its bittersweetness.
Don’t be fooled by the movie’s poster: Everybody’s Fine isn’t a holiday film. It’s not a particularly uplifting one, either. On the contrary, it’s a study in familial disconnection that’s smartly observed, well acted and poignantly on the money. Frank churned out a million miles of telephone cable in his career. The irony is that his life is one big communication breakdown.