— by JOEL CRARY —
I haven’t see “Stanno tutti bene,” the Italian film on which Kirk Jones’ “Everybody’s Fine” is based, but noticing that it starred Marcello Mastroianni in the De Niro role made me smile. De Niro is one of the great actors, capable of a part like this, but Mastroianni had an indelible expression that communicated tired humour in the face of life’s obstacles. I think of Mastroianni visiting his children, looking at the people they’ve become with cocked eyebrows and raising his hand as if sarcastically accepting applause.
In the original, the character of Frank Goode was an opera enthusiast, his children named after opera characters, his efforts to reconnect with them the stuff of operatic tragedy. The plot has been shoehorned in by Jones to fit a modern America suburban old timer whose kids have migrated away from home to find different degrees of success. Frank’s (De Niro) wife passed less than a year ago. She was the one the kids talked to, while he spent his moments apart from work raising them to be the best at their interests.
Conclusions reached from going out into the world and becoming one’s own person can be hard to break to a parent with their own set of ethics and set-in-stone beliefs. Amy (Kate Beckinsale) is having marital problems. Robert (Sam Rockwell) has told his dad he conducts orchestras when he merely bangs a drum. Rosie (Drew Barrymore) isn’t certain if she likes girls or boys. And then there’s David (Austin Lysy), who everybody but Frank knows the truth about.
I come from a family of four kids and recognized certain details that Jones gets right, such as the conspiratorial efforts to keep bad news from the person each is trying to both protect and impress. David is in trouble in Mexico. His siblings make excuses to avoid visiting Frank so that they won’t have to lie to his face. After years spent trying to raise the perfect family, they don’t think he can take it. Frank takes it upon himself to visit them, even though years of coating telephone wires in PVC has left his lungs in bad shape.
It’s a nifty metaphor — Frank spent his working life sealing lines of communication, yet he can’t communicate with his kids. He proudly shows off thousands of miles of his work to a stranger on a train. But this is where Jones’ script starts to falter. His symbolism is obvious to the point of violation. Hurricane Alice is destroying the coast. A passenger informs him, “My name is Alice. It’s Greek for ‘truth.'” Get it? The truth is going to come on like a violent storm and disrupt things.
Frank still sees his grown children as kids. Jones chooses to represent Frank’s outlook by switching his actors with toddler counterparts. Little Amy disappears behind a staircase and when she re-emerges, it’s Kate Beckinsale! It’s a motif that Jones repeats ad nauseum near to the point of farce, leading to a completely surreal hallucinatory scene in which Frank confronts the subconscious constructions of his children as storm clouds gather.
The biggest and final misstep is David’s fate, which is lazy, emotionally exploitative and borderline cruel. The film cries out for reconciliation, stomps all over it and then tries to justify its necessity. I wanted to like Frank, but he’s so turned in on himself that he seems beyond hope. There is a desire in him to change his old approach to fatherhood, and Jones tacks on the obligatory bittersweet ending, but the fact that Frank has been ravaged by his lackluster abilities as a father drives a dagger deep into the good will of the film’s final scene.
There are moments of poignancy, my favourite among them a scene in which Frank encounters a homeless youth (Brendan Sexton III) and offers to lend a compassionate hand. But for every well envisioned moment, there’s a trite interjection of past-voice narration, dialogue from years ago that is heard in order to stoke an empathy for regret. I enjoyed the Frank-Robert exchange the most, as Rockwell provides an accurate portrayal of a son who has spent his whole life trying to both impress his father and convince himself that he doesn’t have to.
Though the performances are fine overall, the fault lies squarely in the dismal screenplay. Similar in theme, Alexander Payne’s superior “About Schmidt” worked in part because Schmidt’s attitudes and desires came from character rather than character type — Jones seems to simply skim the surface, hitting emotional notes with scenes evoking death and memory without giving them depth. Families are tough. Everyone thinks they know what’s best. The strength of that bond should offer anyone the opportunity to have their mind changed. Frank’s mind is not simply changed. It’s beaten with a baseball bat and left for dead.
Follow Joel Crary on Twitter at http://twitter.com/joelcrary.