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Holiday movie offers little cheer


December 11, 2009

The theatrical poster for “Everybody’s Fine” is misleading in two ways: 1) It sports a Christmas tree decked out in glitz and glam standing proud in the background, signaling to the viewer they are about to enter a holiday film, when, in fact, there is only gloom and glummer on display. 2) All the characters are smiling, which is ironic since “Everybody’s Fine” centers around an unhappy family that has little to smile about. But what the hell, it stars Robert De Niro in it, right?

He plays Frank Goode, a recently widowed father and just retired workaholic from a wire coating factory. The job has given him black lung and the widowing has given him depression. On the eave of a much-anticipated visit from all four of his children, they all cancel, leaving Frank to mourn over his newly purchased grill. But he doesn’t just roll over and wallow in self-pity; Frank, against the advice of his doctor, embarks on a cross-country trip to surprise each one of his children on their home turf.

His emotional journey of self-discovery is akin to watching Harry Chapin’s song “Cat’s in the Cradle” played out on screen. As Frank is hastily dismissed by each child in turn, he silently reflects on how now that he has time for his children, they have no time for him. But his epiphany is twofold: Frank must also deal with the realization that his family has perpetually sugar-coated their communications with him, painting saccharine pictures of success and happiness that mask a harsh reality of broken families and faded dreams.

It is in this façade put up for Frank’s sake that director Kirk Jones explores the film’s most universal theme, and the one sure to resonate most with audiences: how the expectations of a parent can shape the lives of children, how children will grow up and react to meet those expectations and the schism created by falling short.

Frank’s first stop is New York to see his painter son David, who has mysteriously vanished. Next up is Amy (Kate Beckinsale), who tries desperately to hide her marital problems and her son’s escalating academic failures. After only one night, Frank is quickly passed on to Robert (Sam Rockwell), a lazy percussionist in Denver who Frank has been led to believe is actually the orchestra conductor. Robert only allows the visit to last an afternoon, lying about an impending concert that will take him out of country. So it is off to Las Vegas, where Rosie (Drew Barrymore), a show dancer, borrows a spacious apartment she passes off as her own and introduces Frank to his grandson under the guise of a friend’s child she’s babysitting. Frank plays along in each case, but is savvy enough to see through the illusions presented to him, and understands that his children feel better about lying to him than risking his disappointment.

The narrative has some truly emotional moments, tempered by a few light spots of humor, but Jones builds a buffer so wide between the characters and the audience that the story loses some of its impact. And the presence of one too many predictable clichés cheapens the film overall. What saves the film is De Niro’s inspired performance. Although its is sure to be criticized by some as cheap Oscar bait, De Niro, who is known for his typically larger-than-life characters, gives a brilliantly understated performance. There is nothing extraordinary about Frank, which is why he works within the confines of the film. While the same cannot be said about the supporting cast, De Niro vanishes and the audience is left with only Frank.

“Everybody’s Fine” is most certainly not for everyone. The brooding themes and depressing story arc betray what audiences have come to expect from a holiday road movie. But that isn’t an excuse to ignore the film. For once we are presented with a family film, but one that is meant for adult children to see with their parents. Hopefully the dangers it showcases of falling out of touch will spark a stronger connection between grown kids and their parents; perhaps that is the film’s purpose, its holiday gift.

Ken Weigend is an alumnus of UW-River Falls. He was editor of the Student Voice during spring semester 2010.