Friday, December 4, 2009

Father Knows Least

Everybody’s Fine belongs to the “Old Man Road Trip” movie tradition, in which a retiree, played by an aging A-list actor, embarks on a sentimental, transformative journey. Jack Nicholson has made two, About Schmidt and The Bucket List. This season, it’s 66-year-old Robert De Niro in Everybody’s Fine, directed by Kirk Jones (Waking Ned Devine).

The melancholy movie is based on Giuseppe Tornatore’s
Stanno tutti bene, which starred Marcello Mastroianni as a retired Sicilian bureaucrat. Just as dinner at one of Italy’s finest restaurants can’t be replicated by eating at the Olive Garden, the bittersweet enchantment of an Italian film suffers when filtered through the conventions of a Hollywood holiday movie.

De Niro plays Frank, a widower retired after 30 years manufacturing coatings for telephone wires. While Frank prepares for a reunion with his grown children, they each call to say they can’t make it. Impulsively, Frank boards a train to pay surprise visits to his children scattered across the country. Onboard, he shows off a photo of his successful brood: David the artist, Amy the ad executive (Kate Beckinsale), Robert the renowned orchestra conductor (Sam Rockwell), and Rosie the Las Vegas dancer (Drew Barrymore).

On his first stop, New York, Frank finds David missing from his rundown tenement apartment. He heads to Chicago, where Amy, a gorgeous ad executive, is hiding the truth about her marriage and other things. In the Northwest, Frank discovers Robert isn’t an orchestra conductor but a percussionist (though why that’s a bad thing is unclear). Rosie, living in an expensive Vegas apartment, is conducting an elaborate charade as well.

Phone conversations, set against a landscape of telephone lines echoing Frank’s career, reveal that David’s in trouble, and the siblings have agreed not to tell Dad. For years, they confided in their mom, who assured Dad they were all “fine,” because they considered him a demanding taskmaster.

There’s pathos in the kids’ lying to the old man, revealed to him in a dream sequence in which they appear as the children they once were, a magical-realist device better suited to the movie’s Italian progenitor. There are poignant scenes, as when lost David “appears” at his ailing father’s bedside, but generally the movie clicks along on a predictable track, punctuated by a series of sappy pop songs. Secrets are revealed, relationships are healed, all in time to trim the tree.

Mastroianni was touching as the bewildered pensioner in thick eyeglasses telling his dead wife's gravestone that the children are “all fine.” De Niro goes through the same motions, but to far less stirring effect. Maybe because he’s played so many tough guys, or maybe because his goofy expressions cue laughter, not tears, he seems miscast in sentimental roles.

(A different version appeared in the Cleveland Scene.)

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