People were sobbing so loudly near the end of my screening of Everybody's Fine I felt like quite the heel, sitting dry-eyed toward the back, mentally groaning every time another sentimental bow was tied around remaining plot threads. The movie is pretty much the Marley and Me of this holiday season, except in the place of an adorable yellow lab there's adorable Robert De Niro, playing the aging dad that everyone feels bad about not calling frequently enough. If you want a dose of guilt alongside your holiday sap, this is surely the movie for you.
Really, it's a movie for people unwilling to think too hard about what they're watching, and ignore an unsatisfying story in exchange for blunt emotional catharsis. It doesn't take long for the movie to start breaking your heart, introducing us to Frank Goode (De Niro) as he prepares for the weekend arrival of his adult children, whom we all know will bail on him the moment we see him fussing over wine selections in the grocery store. Frank's wife had been the communicator of the family, and eight months after her death, Frank decides to take it upon himself to reconnect with his kids by traveling across the country to visit each of them.
He can't track down artist Jack in New York so moves on to Chicago millionaire Amy (Kate Beckinsale), who's almost unforgivably rude as she rushes him out of town and on to Robert (Sam Rockwell), a musician on a tour stop with his symphony in Denver. Frank had somehow gotten the idea that Robert was a conductor, but he's in fact a lowly bass drummer, a job he insists is just fine. Frank gets the same false front from Rosie (Drew Barrymore) in Las Vegas, who hosts Frank in a lavish apartment and boasts about a successful career as a dancer, while it's clear from the outset that neither is actually hers.
In fact, pretty much everything that's supposed to be subtle is clear from the outset, from Amy's "accidental" introduction of a "coworker" at the train station to the fact that Frank's traveling against his doctor's wishes will eventually land him in trouble. As Frank travels the kids call each other to discuss David, who has landed in Mexican prison on drug charges; the fact that no name-brand actor has been hired to play this role should tell you exactly where this story is headed. Even the cinematography, focusing on the same telephone wires that Frank spent his career helping build, emphasizes the themes of the film so insistently you wonder how stupid they think you are. There's one extraordinary scene in which De Niro confronts a group of child actors playing his kids, forcing them to confess everything they've been hiding from him, but its aesthetic adventures don't make up for the fact that it's too much explanation, too late in the film to carry any real meaning.
De Niro is just fine as the amiable dad who may have been a darker figure in the past, and all the actors playing the kids seem to have taken the job as something unchallenging to do before taking on their next real movie. Even though Everybody's Fine is not at all the Christmas movie it's being marketed as, it may as well be one, pleasant and cozy and just challenging enough to not feel like a Hallmark movie. Just because director Kirk Jones, and maybe De Niro with him, think it's more doesn't mean you need to be fooled as well.