Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Review: "Everybody's Fine"

"Everybody's Fine" is ... well, just fine.

This inoffensive but largely charmless drama is a remake of a well-regarded 1990 Italian movie, about a retired father whose adult children stand him up on a promised visit, so he travels to each of their far-flung homes to see them. Now the story has been transplanted to the States with all the quirky opera references removed (the Italian dad was a music buff who named his children Tosca, etc.).

Robert De Niro has done many things in his great career, but he's never played a total Average Joe like this, a man without any kind of strong personality traits or identity.

Frank Goode is like a million guys you see in their early golden years: Widowed, seemingly content but a little needy, who fills his days with quotidian distractions like mowing the lawn and chewing the fat with his butcher.

Frank's getting ready for a big family reunion at his house, but one by one the kids call to cancel. Not one to wallow in self-pity, he resolves to travel the country to see his four children -- and deliver cryptic letters to each of them.

He can't fly because of lung fibrosis due to decades of putting PVC coating on thousands of miles of telephone wire, so Frank goes the train and bus route. He takes pride in watching the wires he helped make go streaming by his window, bragging to a fellow passenger that it took a million miles of the stuff to pay for his kids' educations.

Those wires also carry the conversations of his children, who soon get wind of his "surprise" visits and conspire to keep him in the dark about the youngest sibling, David, an artist who's seemingly disappeared.

After missing David in New York, Frank sees Amy (Kate Beckinsale) in Chicago. She's a partner at a big advertising firm, and lives in an art deco mansion. All seems well, but there's some dark clouds between her son and husband.

This sets up the dynamic for all of Frank's visits, which involve his children avoiding him and lying about their life circumstances. Since he doesn't seem like a bad guy, we wonder why they would treat him so shabbily.

Robert (Sam Rockwell) plays percussion in an orchestra, which is great except that Frank had been led to believe he was the conductor. It's the same with Rosie (Drew Barrymore), who lives in a fab Las Vegas apartment and has a female friend with a baby with which his daughter seems overly familiar.

The film "Everybody's Fine" will remind most people of is "About Schmidt," a similarly-themed movie starring Jack Nicholson as a man navigating the straits between family man of business and lonely retiree.

Writer/director Kirk Jones ("Nanny McPhee") layers in moments of levity, gently poking fun at the middle-class values and foibles of people like Frank. He insists on taking photographs of Amy in front of her company's sign, and even takes a picture of the impressive big-screen TV in Rosie's guest bedroom.

It doesn't really add up to much, other than a drably pleasant protagonist struggling to narrow the distance he's inadvertently placed between himself and his offspring. Like Frank himself, who doesn't traffic much in introspection, "Everybody's Fine" has few depths to plumb.

2 stars

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