It’s refreshing to see Robert De Niro shove aside his tough guy screen persona now and then, to remind viewers used to his antics that beyond his icy glare and powder keg temper lies a uniquely sensitive actor. “Everybody’s Fine” is a thorough tear-jerker, but the feature earns most of its sentiment, due in great part to De Niro and his gentle, worrywart lead performance. I’m not suggesting this is De Niro at his most invested and commanding, but his communication of concern adds a needed push of authenticity to a film forever on the precipice of pure schmaltz.
Recently widowed and suffering from lung problems due to his years coating telephone wires with PVC, Frank (Robert De Niro) is eager to connect with his four estranged children, Rosie (Drew Barrymore), Amy (Kate Beckinsale), David (Austin Lysy), and Robert (Sam Rockwell). When they all ditch him over a planned reunion weekend, Frank decides to surprise them by traveling to their doorstep unannounced, looking to force his kids into some alone time. Traveling across the country, Frank finds his children panicked to cover their real jobs and lives, trying to impress their father with a false representation of success. Concerned his kids are fearful of his disapproval, Frank spends his downtime reflecting on his tough-love parenting skills, hesitant to admit he might’ve been the one to push his family away.
In “Everybody’s Fine,” De Niro plays the all-American male provider; a man who’s made a living by any means necessary to support his family, doing the dirty work because that sort of responsibility was expected of him. He took a wife, had children, finally reaching his retirement years ready to survey the results of his hard work. The blue-collar, one-hand-on-the-belt parenting mentality is a perfect fit for De Niro and his trademarked emotive distance. It’s a generous role that gives the legendary actor a proper spectrum of responses to play as Frank inches toward uncomfortable domestic realizations. Working a concerned, slightly daffy, travel-weary routine, De Niro harpoons Frank’s emotional challenges, irritated further by the prolonged absence of David, who Frank rode the hardest as a child.
A remake of 1990 Italian motion picture, “Everybody’s Fine” has the type of plot that would sour immediately under an indecisive director. Thankfully, Kirk Jones (“Waking Ned Devine”) cleanly registers the drama as heartfelt, paying attention to the reality of the situation, and not the melodrama. Frank’s not a monster, he just wanted the best for his kids. The family isn’t a collection of screenwriting clichés, but a unit that splintered under the weight of expectation, with each child not necessarily living the dream, but living a life, paranoid that’s not enough for their father. The sentiments are genuine and expressed skillfully by the ensemble and Jones, giving atypical life to the picture. During the persuasive opening half of the feature, “Everybody’s Fine” is touching without slipping into a cloying routine, hitting a sweet spot of regret that I’m certain most filmgoers around the ages of these characters will be able to relate to in some way or another.
Turbulence hits in late into the film when it dawns on Jones that he can’t quite maneuver the characters quickly enough to express themselves in full. It leads to at least two dreadful scenes of confession, poorly mounted and rushed, lacking the poignancy the rest of the film had been nursing wonderfully. “Everybody’s Fine” eventually unplugs the waterworks in the finale, but it’s an earned response within a tender, loving picture that’s fascinatingly honest about parenthood. Robert De Niro should make more films like it.