What happens when the person who serves as the glue of the family dies?
This is the precarious question Frank Goode (Robert De Niro) wrestles with in the wake of his wife's death, though he doesn't realize it at first. In fact, he doesn't even realize how strained his relationships are with his four children, who are all now grown and living out of state.
His wake-up call occurs during his first attempt to gather all four kids around his dining room table. One by one they all back out, phoning with flimsy excuses as to why they can't make it. Since he's newly retired and doesn't quite know what to do with himself yet anyway, Frank decides to embark on a series of surprise visits to his kids. But, of course, he's in for many surprises of his own.
Against the advice of his doctor (Frank has fibrosis of the lungs brought on by decades of breathing the PVC coating he's applied to millions of miles of telephone wires), Frank packs up his suitcase and boards a train for New York City, where his son David—the successful artist—lives. Unfortunately, David's not home.
So Frank hops on a bus bound for his daughter Amy's (Kate Beckinsale) house in Chicago. She's the high-powered advertising exec with the huge house and happy family. Then he goes to Denver to visit Robert (Sam Rockwell), the big-time symphony conductor. And finally on to see Rosie (Drew Barrymore), the lead dancer in big Vegas show.
But along the way Frank realizes everyone isn't as fine and successful as he'd thought—at least the way he'd define those terms. As he traipses across the country, Frank begins to wrestle with why his family hasn't been altogether honest with him—and what they're possibly keeping from him now.
Along this journey, there are some lovely quiet moments. Frank in a non-descript hotel lobby eating the complimentary breakfast alone. Frank chatting with various strangers on trains or buses (begging the question why it's easier for him to talk with these people than with his own children). Frank snapping pictures with his old-school camera (with film!) of his kids' homes, families, workplaces, and big-screen televisions. And miles of telephone wires running lyrically through the film, offering snippets of phone conversations between Frank's kids.
Unfortunately these lovely moments are interrupted by several heavy-handed ones. While Frank waits for his son David at a neighborhood diner, he's kept company by a few other elderly men who speak of families who are too busy for them. Every time Frank sees one of his kids, he first pictures them at about eight years of age. The first use of this device is endearing. But by the last visit, when I'm thinking, Andhere comes the shot when Frank pictures Rosie as an eight-year-old, the charm is gone.
The conversations between Frank and his children—about expectations, about why they've kept bad news from dad, about whether or not he's proud of the lives they're actually living—are at times poignant, capturing well the gaps between these generations in terms of emotional expression, vocational expectations, dreams, desires, and values. At other times these conversations start to make the film feel like an overlong PSA for fathers: "Don't be like Frank." "Love your kids for who they are." "Don't push them too hard." Cue the "Cat's in the Cradle" soundtrack.
While the tone is uneven and the pacing at times a bit slow, there are interesting overall messages to ponder here. There's an interesting exploration of the good that can come after the loss of a loved one, or a longtime job, or one's health. It's too bad that these glimpses of grace get lost in the heavy-handedness—and then short-changed by a too-tidy ending. The grace- and gravitas-filled moments and the strong acting (by all the family members, especially De Niro) make the numerous scenes that fall short or that try to emotionally manipulate extra frustrating.
Speaking of frustration, the trailers for Everybody's Fine (a remake of the Italian film Stanno Tutti Bene) are a prime example of a pet peeve of mine. From watching these teasers you'd think the film is a comedy. It's even listed as a comedy on several websites. While there are a few funny moments (almost all of which are included in the trailers), Everybody's Fine is most definitely a drama. Stop misleading us, trailer-makers!
In the end, I can't think that Frank, the father who pushed (too) hard for his kids to be the very best, would have been pleased with this overall effort. Too much wasted potential.
Talk About ItDiscussion starters
- Why have Frank's kids (and even his wife) not been completely honest with him over the years?
- What are Frank's strengths and weaknesses as a father? How have these traits impacted each of his children?
- Frank wanted new and better opportunities for his kids. In what ways did he help and in what ways did he hinder this noble desire?
- What is (or was) your relationship like with your father? What's good? What do you wish was different? Is there anything you can do to help make those changes?
- Is there a person who serves as the glue in your family? What would happen if he/she were gone? What can you do now to ensure strong family ties without leaning too heavily on that one person?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
Everybody's Fine is rated PG-13 for thematic elements and brief strong language. The language occurs when Frank is golfing with his middle-school-aged grandson (he mentions Jesus in this tirade, but not in a prayerful way). The thematic elements are mostly covered in conversation and not shown. One character is having an affair, another is trying to figure out her sexual orientation, another has had a baby out of wedlock, another has overdosed on drugs. A prostitute playfully propositions Frank while he's waiting on the stairs outside David's apartment. He declines and she quickly moves on.
Photos © Miramax
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