As its title suggests Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes is intended to lay the foundation for a new franchise of sci-fi flicks in which humans and super-intelligent apes battle for earthly supremacy. Its duty then is to explain within the span of two hours and with a modicum of credulity how exactly our simian friends might come to supplant us atop the animal kingdom. The scenario was at least partially addressed in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes the fourth entry in the original series’ convoluted and time-warped canon and while Wyatt's film draws inspiration from Conquest it is by no means a remake. Nor for that matter is related in any way to Tim Burton’s underwhelming 2001 entry. (And thank goodness for that.)
The titular rise begins as with many of the world’s great catastrophes with the actions of one highly irresponsible man. Will Rodman (James Franco) is a genetic scientist of prodigious talent and questionable ethics who works at a fancy San Francisco biotech firm called Gen-Sys (subtle!). His effort at producing a cure for Alzheimer’s Disease carries an ulterior motive: His father (John Lithgow) suffers from it and is close to entering its final stages. Will is close to a breakthrough when one of his chimpanzee test subjects goes well apesh*t causing his company’s suitably callous CEO Steven Jacobs (David Oyelowo gamely spewing lines like “I run a business not a petting zoo!") to order the research facility’s entire chimp population liquidated.
Will is busy carrying out the grim mandate when he discovers that one of the test chimps has borne an offspring one he can’t bring himself to euthanize. Instead he and his primatologist girlfriend Caroline (Frieda Pinto gorgeous and superfluous) partners in appallingly bad decision-making decide to raise the infant chimp as their own naming it Caesar. Having inherited his mother’s gene modifications he shows signs of advanced intelligence and quickly develops a close bond with his adoptive human parents. But Caesar soon outgrows his domestic habitat and eventually must be shipped off to a simian “sanctuary” that is in reality anything but.
At this point we’re halfway through the film – and miles away from erudite apes and enslaved humans. To get us on track director Wyatt executes a rather audacious tonal shift transitioning abruptly from what was heretofore a fairly sober Project Nim dramatization into the balls-out apes-gone-wild summer action flick promised by the film’s trailers. His efforts are aided tremendously by his screenwriters Amanda Silver and Rick Jaffa whose clever absorbing script offers just enough plausibility in the first half to make its increasingly loony second half not just palatable but downright enjoyable. Wyatt strikes a delicate thematic balance respecting the subject matter while acknowledging its inherent silliness. (Scattered throughout the film are sly nods to previous Planet of the Apes films as well as a glimpse of Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments.)
The silliness accelerates seemingly by the frame in Rise’s latter half as Caesar mounts a conspiracy to escape his Dickensian squalor exact revenge upon his cartoonishly malevolent captors and take his simian revolution to the streets. And it only gets crazier from there – the third act is basically a PETA wet dream. As far as cautionary tales go Rise is about as cautionary as they come.
Andy Serkis who performed all of the performance-capture work for Caesar is a marvel in the role though the question remains as to how the credit should be divvied up between him and the technicians at WETA digital who “painted” the character’s CG features. And make no mistake Caesar is very much a character – as well-rounded and fully-formed and convincing as they come and easily more compelling than any of his non-digital counterparts. Franco for his part is credible enough as a scientist who in spite of his academic credentials is a bit of a dolt (and perhaps a tad disturbed) and Lithgow tackles a relatively thankless role with grace. But the real stars are all those damn dirty apes.
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.