Father uncovers hidden family secrets in bittersweet ‘Everybody’s Fine’
When was the last time you called your folks? You might want to make that call after seeing Everybody’s Fine, a wistful drama of family dynamics and the lies we tell ourselves and our loved ones—just to get by. Although the film doesn’t entirely resist the urge to tie things up in a neat package, the story is surprisingly schmaltz-free in the telling, mostly rising above easy sentimentality for a thoughtful look at parenting, expectations and disappointment.
British writer-director Kirk Jones (Waking Ned Devine) adapted the story from a 1990 Italian film starring Marcello Mastroianni. Jones cast Robert De Niro in one of his more persuasive recent roles, and plunks him down in the middle of America as Frank Goode, patriarch of a large, but far-flung clan. Eight months a widower, Frank is puttering around his house in the New England suburbs getting ready to welcome home his four adult children for a weekend reunion.
But when they start calling in, one by one, to say they can’t come, Frank starts to realize how removed he’s become from his kids’ lives; staying in touch was something he always left to his late wife. So he decides to go visit each of his children instead, charting a cruse by train and bus. Retired from a long career applying PVC coating to telephone wire, Frank is eager to tell a stranger on the train about his odyssey to see his kids, boasting of the “million feet of wire (it took) to get ’em where they are today.”
Where that is, exactly, is what the story is about. In New York, Frank waits for hours one night outside the apartment of his son, David, an artist, but David never comes home. Hopping on a bus to Chicago, he finds daughter Amy (Kate Beckinsale) at home with her husband and adolescent son. Amy is a partner in a swanky advertising firm, and mistress of a gorgeous house, but Frank senses tension at the family dinner table and in the lame excuses she makes to keep Frank from staying any longer than one night.
Heading west for Denver, Frank drops in on his musical son, Robert (Sam Rockwell), a fidgety underachiever content to play bass drum in a symphony orchestra. (“It’s low-pressure and the money’s good,” he shrugs.) Robert doesn’t exactly encourage the old man to stick around, either (he says the orchestra is leaving on tour the next day), so Frank heads for Las Vegas to see his daughter, Rosie (Drew Barrymore), a dancer. She’s happy to spend some more time with him, but by now he’s feeling a profound sense of disconnect, not only between the reality of his kids’ lives and the stories they’ve been telling him, but between the adult strangers they’ve become and the children they were. (Who pop in and out of the present-day action as Frank fondly remembers them.)
Despite a vein of tragedy that weaves through the story, it’s not really a dark film; the offspring aren’t horribly estranged from their dad (the worst anyone can say about him is he “pushed them pretty hard” as kids to achieve their dreams), and their problems are mostly too commonplace to justify their conspiracy of white lies. The film is more acute in charting Frank’s quiet disillusion that he’s no longer an important enough factor in his kids’ lives for them to confide in, which will resonate with most parents. (In an inventive moment toward the end, Frank confronts his kids in their childhood selves, who tell him their truths at last, and counsel him to “Act like nothing’s wrong. That’s what Mom did.”)
It’s too bad Jones didn’t stick to Frank’s viewpoint throughout. But he can’t resist the motif of those telephone wires, burning up with conversations the siblings have among themselves in voice-over, telling the audience more than Frank knows about his kids instead of letting us figure out the truth, as Frank does, along the way. Nor can the director resist an idyllic coda of harmony and reconciliation tacked onto the end. Still, overall, it’s a well-acted, often moving tale of the way families grow, separate, and reconfigure over time.
EVERYBODY’S FINE ★★★ (out of four) Watch movie trailer >>>
With Robert De Niro, Kate Beckinsale, Sam Rockwell, and Drew Barrymore. Written and directed by Kirk Jones.
A Miramax release. Rated PG-13. 100 minutes.