Who’s fine? No one really but we all knew that right? Where does politeness stop and uncomfortable truth begin and what are the considerations we make before burdening someone with the unvarnished truth? Everybody’s Fine ponders these things in a somber and intelligent way that belies its generic holiday movie poster.
Robert De Niro plays Frank an aging widower who spends his lonely days keeping his empty nest tidy and its surrounding foliage immaculate in the way the retired tend to do. He feels intensely the absence of his four grown-up children since the recent death of his wife and when they all back out of a planned holiday gathering at the family home he decides to pack up his bag and travel across the country to see each one as a surprise. As he goes from home to home he begins to realize some uncomfortable truths about the relationship he has with them and even worse that there’s a bigger secret they’re all hiding.
This is a remake of a 1990 Italian film Stanno Tutti Bene the follow-up to director Giuseppe Tornatore’s triumphant Best Foreign Language Film Oscar winner Cinema Paradiso. The American interpretation is written and directed by Kirk Jones who previously showed a knack for arty yet accessible films with Waking Ned Devine which like Everybody’s Fine manages to successfully navigate that oh-so-thin line between saccharine sentimentality and genuine emotional resonance. Unlike Devine Everybody’s Fine has no comedic spoonful of sugar to make the discomfort of an all-too-real family dynamic go down.
De Niro’s portrayal of Frank comes almost as a relief. After a lifetime of loud and brusque characters he settles into the retiree part like a comfortable old pair of slippers. Frank is easily as conflicted as any other person De Niro has played but in a much quieter way -- a dad sorta way. De Niro so entirely and naturally becomes Frank that it’s hard not to project your own feelings toward your father onto him. And I suppose that is the point.
Frank’s children are played by Kate Beckinsale Sam Rockwell and Drew Barrymore who are given just enough development to explain their estrangement from their father -- but that’s all the roles require. They’re loosely defined enough for the audience to hopefully identify with at least one of them but only in the service of laying familial guilt at our own feet. It’s De Niro's eyes the audience sees through; it’s his movie and he owns it.
Everything eventually leads to that question of whether or not to trouble the ones we love with our bad news. Everybody’s Fine is relatively taciturn with its conclusions but offers an important suggestion to consider the matter more closely in the audience’s own lives. And isn’t that what good art should do? This may not be the most uplifting film one could see this holiday season but it is one of the more thoughtful ones. Between the simple effectiveness of De Niro’s performance the lovely cinematography of Henry Braham (it is sort of a road-trip movie) and the interesting questions it raises Everybody’s Fine is a terrific choice for those who want something more in-depth from their Xmas viewing than tinsel and tired sentimentality.
Martin (Pat Healy) gets a job at a record company complete with its own The Office-esque quirky characters: a Tony Robbins-esque boss trying to motivate his employees; a meek guy in a suit just trying to play by the rules; and finally Martin’s partner Clarence (Kene Holliday) an enthusiastic guy who raves about things as mundane as coffee. The job is to sign new artists who can make the company and the agents a fortune. However it requires a financial investment on the artists' part so the job really is to get the money from the aspiring artist. After learning the methods Martin and Clarence start auditioning acts hitting the road looking for more clients much to the chagrin of Martin’s wife (Rebecca Mader). When they discover an actual talent Martin shares the investment fee which obviously makes him vulnerable to the company's scheme. There are a few random inappropriate moments--as well as some pretty bad music acts--which provides socially awkward humor but none of this is laugh-out-loud material. The cast fully commit to this little film with fully realized performances. Healy is the working stiff who doesn’t question the bigger picture. Martin has issues with his wife he doesn't even recognize or articulate; he’s just all about maintaining the status quo. Holliday on the other hand is the more boisterous character. His Clarence is eccentric and the job allows his personality to focus on something. Some of Clarence’s freak-outs are a little bit too convenient as if the film is trying too hard for the laugh. Still Healy and Holliday as their characters clearly become more comfortable with each other as the film progresses showing the natural evolution of a partnership. Mader plays the ever-suffering spouse a truly supportive partner who's getting left out. You sympathize with her. Meanwhile the supporting players totally set up the world of the film especially John Baker as the boys' boss the ultimate salesman commanding his subordinates to do what he says. For his first feature director Craig Zobel has all the basics down. He cuts scenes together smoothly but some of the camera work tries to take advantage of handheld when it's really not necessary. Still it's never egregiously distracting. Zobel also gets the performances out of his actors. They all portray the characters the film designs. Where Great World of Sound falters is on how repetitive it is as the action goes through the rigmarole of auditioning bad singers and making the same pitch over and over. If the acts or the sales pitches were hilarious it would be perfectly fine to spend the whole movie there but ultimately they are just versions of the same idea. And the music is drab and monotonous probably on purpose but it gets irritating as the film progresses. Zobel does show potential however—we should watch out for his next effort.