If you had polled a random sampling of movie nerds in 1993, and asked them to name the best living male and female American actors, I’m willing to bet that the winners would have been Robert DeNiro and Meryl Streep. Fifteen years later, Streep is as revered and versatile as ever. But what about Bob?
On the one hand, you’ve got to hand it to DeNiro for attempting a late-career change of course, re-inventing himself as a comedic stalwart for Analyze This, Meet the Parents and their sequels. But he’s also taken to slumming in limp thrillers (Hide and Seek, Righteous Kill) and saving some of his most interesting work for cameo roles (the swish-buckling pirate in Stardust). Like a great athlete past his prime, we keep watching DeNiro on the off chance that we’ll catch glimpse of what once made him unstoppable — and then kicking ourselves that we wasted the time.
Everybody’s Fine is exactly the sort of role that DeNiro doesn’t need at this point in his career — one so low key and inoffensive that he doesn’t seem to know what to do with it. In Kirk Jones’ remake of the 1990 Giuseppe Tornatore Italian-language drama, DeNiro plays Frank Goode, a recently widowed retiree looking forward to a weekend visit from all four of his now-grown children.
Instead, they call up one by one to bail out — advertising executive Amy (Kate Beckinsale) pleads a sick kid, and Las Vegas dancer Rosie (Drew Barrymore) and musician Robert (Sam Rockwell) claim work commitments.
So, despite recent health concerns, Frank decides to surprise his far-flung progeny over the course of a single cross-country journey, only to discover that their circumstances generally aren’t what he believed them to be.
Jones takes a welcome reserved approach to the family dynamics, playing on the obvious metaphor of a guy whose life work was manufacturing telephone wire being disconnected from communication about his kids’ less-than-perfect lives. He plays a bit too coy with some of the personal secrets that Frank eventually will discover about his kids — the exception being those surrounding David, Frank’s youngest son — but the absence of melodrama keeps the story compelling.
Enigma can be compelling, too, but the way that the central character here remains unknowable just becomes frustrating. The Frank we see from the outset appears to be an endlessly sociable fellow, the kind of guy who chats up grocery store clerks and strangers on the train. Snatches of flashback suggest that he was a man with high expectations for his children, but there’s not much here that builds on that context.
There are things that everyone keeps from Frank out of a fear of disappointing him, yet there’s virtually nothing in the script to indicate that he’s remotely judgmental or distant from his family. Why does the man we see bear virtually no resemblance to the father we hear described? Everything Frank learns on his journey is designed to lead him to awareness of how he failed as a parent, but exactly what was it he did wrong? It’s left to DeNiro to fill in the blanks that Jones’ script leaves, but he doesn’t seem to know what to do with them, either.
There’s a scene in which Frank gives some money to a homeless man, and appears annoyed at the man’s lack of gratitude. That could have been the entry point into Frank’s strict sense of right and wrong, but DeNiro doesn’t play it with any sort of an edge. And every scene with his children suggests the same basic decency and a sadness that those he loved kept him oblivious to any crack in the facade of well-being.
It’s not as though DeNiro has turned into a bad actor, and maybe his choices of late say something about the options available to any actor of a certain age. But his genial manner and occasional sad-clown smiles in Everybody’s Fine aren’t enough to give this story the emotional punch it requires. That’s something America’s greatest living actor — whoever that may be now — might have pulled off. Grade: B-
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