Robert De Niro is not known as an understated artist. He made his reputation as one of the greatest screen actors ever with larger-than-life performances in films such as “Raging Bull” and “Taxi Driver.” He has increasingly taken on different roles, in comedies, but even here, some critics have accused him of being too much of a ham.
“Everybody’s Fine,” a remake of the Italian film “Stanno tutti bene,” is something of a departure for the veteran actor. It’s not just that he plays a different type of guy — a blue-collar family man who puts PVC on wires for a living — it’s that he plays the guy differently.
As the film opens, a lonely Frank is cleaning and shopping, looking forward to the arrival of all four of his children for the weekend. He wants to impress them; he buys filet mignon and a new grill on which to cook it and asks a grocery clerk for advice on beverages. (“We’ve got English wines from France. We’ve got Italian wines from all over Europe,” the clerk responds in an example of British writer-director Kirk Jones’ frequently sly humor.)
His kids haven’t been home since their mother’s funeral eight months before, but every single one cancels on him. Frank is feeling disconnected — his wife held the family together — and so, against his doctor’s advice, he embarks on a cross-country road trip to visit each one.
What he finds is that his children aren’t doing as well as his wife had him believe — and they are reluctant to see this man who had such high expectations for them without the buffer of their mother. He thought Robert (Sam Rockwell) was a big-time conductor; he’s a small-time percussionist. Amy (Kate Beckinsale) is doing well in her advertising career, but her family life is going down the toilet. Rosie (Drew Barrymore), ostensibly a lead dancer in a Las Vegas revue, has issues with both. And David is MIA, though his siblings know a lot more about his whereabouts than they’re letting on with their father.
To be honest, these kids are a little insufferable. Their father has risked his life to see them. And the one question he asks of each of them is, “Are you happy?” Yet all but one beg off from visiting the new widower, a man they know has health problems. This film could, then, have been a fascinating inquiry into a little-explored subject — how grown children treat their parents and how we as a whole treat the elderly. Instead, it becomes the kind of maudlin tale we’ve seen on-screen so often, especially around the holidays. Its ending — ironic in the Italian original rather earnest as here — isn’t earned.
The underplaying Mr. De Niro, though, is fascinating to watch. This certainly is one of his most interesting performances in years. The film really only falters when it leaves his expression-filled face, one that hints at a lifetime of dedication to unreciprocating children. The iconic actor is completely believable as a blue-collar guy whose only joy in life comes from family. The actors who play the children are all fine — but we all know what we mean when we say we’re fine.
TITLE: “Everybody’s Fine”
RATING: PG-13 (thematic elements and brief strong language)
CREDITS: Written and directed by Kirk Jones based on the film “Stanno tutti bene”
RUNNING TIME: 95 minutes
WEB SITE: miramax.com/everybodysfine
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS
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