After too many years and too many films spent squandering his considerable talent, Robert de Niro has redeemed himself in a little film, EVERYBODY’S FINE, perfectly designed to showcase his genius. He plays Frank, a recently widowered retiree with a lung condition from years of working with telephone wires. He’s a man who has devoted his whole life and his whole being to making sure that his kids would be able to have their dreams. In the process, he lost touch with them, leaving his wife to keep the family ties going, and everyone keeping things from Frank that might make him unhappy. His is not a dysfunctional family in any sort of pathological sense. Far from it, the affection on both sides is overwhelming. A little too overwhelming.
When a summer family reunion doesn’t come off as planned, with each of his kids canceling in turn, Frank takes it upon himself, poor health and dicey lungs notwithstanding, to travel to each of his far-flung kids and do a little catching up. Each puts on a brave face, telling Frank what they want him to hear, to keep him proud of them, and to keep them from feeling that they have disappointed him. All except the eldest, David, an artist in New York whose demons have gotten him into trouble in Mexico, and whose whereabouts and condition his sisters (Kate Beckinsale, Drew Barrymore) and brother (Sam Rockwell), conspire to keep from dad. It is the sparing of feelings all around that bring things to a head, the affection that keeps the lies, big and small, going even when no one is fooled into believing them, that provides a breaking point.
What could have been a slight, even cloying tale of miscommunications, becomes in De Niro’s hands a genuinely heart-wrenching story of people’s good intentions gone awry, and the redemption that may or may not be possible after a lifetime of carefully constructed walls. Each first encounter with his children has him seeing them when as the children that they were, not as the adults they are, and the most revealing conversations are conducted this way even after the film has introduced the adult versions. The heartiness of his enthusiasm about his kids that comes through in the conversations he strikes up with strangers, the way he keeps talking when only he is interested bespeaks the emotional investment that has made the sacrifices more than worth it to him. The way he gamely ignores the signals of what the kids are trying to hide with a twinge of sadness, but a bright determination to play along. It’s the very quality that his kids, the advertising mogul with a family in disarray, the musician son who has found an alternate definition of success, and the dancer daughter who has found fulfillment in ways no one anticipated, want to preserve like a page in a scrapbook from their childhood. As for David, the troubled artist, when Frank and the audience finally see one of his paintings, the expression on De Niro’s face is an encyclopedia of parental love, regret, acceptance, and pride that is dazzling.
EVERYBODY’S FINE survives the cultural translation from its Italian original, preserving the universal conundrum that is the family experience. Bittersweet but life-affirming with its uncompromising precis on what people do to each other in the name of sparing their feelings, this is a nice piece of emotional plotting, and a welcome addition to De Niro’s archive of indelible performances, made all the more remarkable for not being bombastic, but for being so very tender.