by Tony Dayoub
Robert De Niro is back. One could be forgiven for thinking his new film, Everybody's Fine, would be your standard issue Oscar-bait weeper from those Academy marketing mavens over at Miramax. And in many ways, the film is just that. But director Kirk Jones (Waking Ned Devine) surrounds Mr. De Niro with an interesting cast of younger actors: Drew Barrymore (Whip It), Kate Beckinsale (Underworld), and Sam Rockwell (Moon). The three (who usually headline their own movies) bring their A-game to what must have been a tempting proposition—the chance to work with a legend like De Niro. Except recently, De Niro has been trading on his reputation to star in some pretty ugly dreck in order to finance his business ventures, stuff like the career-killing Righteous Kill, in which he starred alongside another fading legend in even worse shape, Al Pacino. The good news is that Jones elicits a superb and subtle performance from De Niro (around which the whole film revolves), the likes of which we haven't seen since at least 1995 when he starred in Heat.
The story is a bit predictable, with De Niro's Frank Goode embarking on a journey to visit each of his four grown children after they all cancel their visit to see him for their first reunion since his wife died. Unable to find his son David in New York, he continues on to visit his three other children who live all over the country. Meanwhile, the siblings are all conspiring to keep him out of the loop concerning David, who reportedly suffered an overdose somewhere in Mexico. As they try to figure out what is going on with their youngest brother, they each obfuscate the issue by prodding Frank to go back home. Each of them lies about their personal life for fear that they won't measure up to the demanding Frank's expectations, high expectations which may have driven David to his careless lifestyle.
While their is plenty of opportunity for moments both lighthearted and sad as De Niro plays the cranky set-in-his-ways Frank, this is the first time in a while he stays a good distance away from the now all too predictable mugging that has marred his comedic work in movies like Meet the Parents. Instead, the actor plays Frank amazingly straight as a widower whose loneliness inspires him to reconnect with the children he never suspected had grown so far apart from him to begin with. While none of the young actors resemble each other in appearance or temperament (a typical problem in films of this variety), De Niro makes sure they all resemble him, complementing their performances so that he somehow manages to endow Frank with a distinct behavioral quality from each of his children. His Frank is driven like Beckinsale's Amy; befuddled and humble like Rockwell's Robert; and acerbically humorous like Barrymore's Rosie. He even manages to create an impression of David despite the character's absence, informing it with Frank's own ambitions which he projected onto his son.
Sometimes there are whimsical touches that enliven Everybody's Fine, like the way Jones has child actors stand in for each sibling whenever Frank first lays eyes on them. Other times those touches go a bit too far, as in a third-act dream sequence—where all of the inner turmoil is worked out between Frank and his kids—that is just a touch too on the nose in its frustratingly expository execution. But Jones never descends into maudlin sentimentality, always keeping the film moving briskly past its more melodramatic moments.
He has De Niro to thank for that also. Or maybe De Niro should be thanking Jones, since his performance is Oscar worthy. By directing the actor to internalize much of Frank's misgivings about his relationship with his kids, Jones encourages De Niro to modulate his later more overt emotional expressions like the actor one had always expected in earlier films. A disturbing encounter with a vagrant midway through Everybody's Fine and the inevitable physical toll it has on Frank even later in the movie are sequences which both triumph because De Niro has managed to withhold vital emotions from the viewer prior to the scenes, making their eventual release all the more touching and resonant. If for nothing else, De Niro's poignant performance is enough to recommend the movie.
Everybody's Fine opens in theaters tomorrow.