Good old dependable Robert De Niro can slip into a role like a warm pair of socks, but he's spent so many years immolating his reputation with one dopey comedy after another that he seems almost surprised by the tingling sensation of doing some real acting again. If only the material were worthy of the effort De Niro puts into playing the broken-down patriarch of the most attractive family of all time. His Frank is a humble widower with fading health from decades of breathing toxic plastic fumes from coating telephone wires. His four grown children are scattered across the country, and each has an excuse for skipping a family get-together. Since they won't come to him, Frank sets out to visit his wayward children, riding a Greyhound all the way from New York to Chicago, Denver and Las Vegas, never bothering to call ahead.
None of them is as happy as they lead Dad to believe. Yuppie advertising exec Kate Beckinsale is covering up a disintegrating marriage. Sam Rockwell has sold Pops the notion that he's a conductor even though he's just the drummer, excuse me, "percussionist" in the back of the orchestra. Drew Barrymore is just a mess, and a fourth unseen brother is in really dire straights.
It should be a portrait of selflessness, except that Frank isn't that selfless; he spent so many years providing for his family and being the blue-collar martyr that he never took the time to actually know the adults his children have become.
The plot is every bit as sappy as Harry Chapin's "Cat's in the Cradle," and feels like a contrived tribute to Alexander Payne's About Schmidt. It's actually a direct remake of a minor Marcello Mastroianni tearjerker, except director Kirk Jones has nowhere near the skill to match the original. Jones disrupts the relaxed feeling by washing everything out with swooning, syrupy music.
After laying out subtle clues about the lies the kids have been spinning to spare Dad the ugly truths of their lives, Jones indulges in a fantasy sequence where Frank confronts pint-sized flashback visions of his kids and conducts an interrogation right out of a Law and Order episode, scrupulously dotting the I's and crossing the T's for anybody who wasn't paying attention. This scene is so laughably absurd that it breaks faith with just about everything that's come before. And like a bad holiday party, Everybody's Fine doesn't know when to end, plodding somberly toward an ending that's as artificially sweet as a packet of Splenda.
Save your self the phony guilt trip and call your own family for a dose of the real thing.
Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].