Sunday, December 20, 2009

Everybody's Fine

Ah, that great holiday tradition, the dysfunctional family film. I don't know when it started, but the modern form seems to stem from Ordinary People, that Oscar-winning depress-fest that made us miss Mary Tyler Moore's spunk.

This season's dysfunction starts off with Kirk Jones' (Nanny McPhee, Waking Ned) Everybody's Fine and Robert De Niro, Kate Beckinsale, Sam Rockwell and Drew Barrymore. And, as might be expected from a director with such a gentle pedigree, this isn't your hard-core "you ruined my life and now I'm a drug-addicted suicidal crack whore!" type family dysfunctional movie.

Actually, the dysfunction's pretty mild. De Niro's character is a decent guy, a blue collar wire-insulation man who worked hard to make sure his kids have plenty of opportunities. And his kids, for the most part, aren't screwed up—they're just worried about disappointing him.

On top of that, the one kid who is really screwed up, well, that's not laid at his father's feet.

Kind of refreshing, really. It's less about soul-crushing guilt and despair, and more about communicating to improve relationships. (Sort of an anti-About Schmidt, if you will.)

De Niro is pleasing as the recently widowed father whose kids all cancel a long-planned weekend home, and so decides to embark on a medically ill-advised cross-country journey to see them instead. (The opening scene where he prepares for their arrival is rather touching, with nice touches, such as when he pulls out, inflates and fills the old wading pool.)

The movie flirts with a lot of clich├ęs, reminding me quite a bit of Waking Ned Devine, as it toys a bit with your expectations, but eschews melodrama for something a little less over-the-top and an ultimately less predictable and more satisfying ending.

I rather enjoyed it. We were actually standing there debating whether or not to go see this or The Road, but I've made my opinion on the book rather clear, and the movie is apparently quite faithful to it. So, even without having seen it, I'm pretty sure I picked the more pleasant of experiences available.

It didn't knock The Boy's socks off, of course, but it reminded me, many years ago of having seen Peggy Sue Got Married with my dad. For him, a very emotional movie. (His grandparents were long dead, and so he was deeply touched by Kathleen Turner's trip to the past to see them.) For me, not so much.

One device used here is to show the kids as kids, through De Niro's eyes, and that got to me in a way I wouldn't expect to get to him. Overall, though, I was pleased by the relatively low-level of dysfunction; I think it's a little more realistic than the high dramatics we usually get.

I'm sure the actors love the scene chewing stuff, but there was a lot of nice, low-key drama here. Each of the children lies to their father, trying to protect him from bad news (and also trying to avoid confrontation), but they're not all comfortable with it—or good at it.

So, while the cool, professional Beckinsale puts De Niro off rather mechanically, expressing regrets but not exhibiting a lot of warmth in her attempt to keep news away from him, the bubbly Barrymore is much more facile in her lying, and still very affectionate to him. The more morose Rockwell is an abysmal liar and knows it.

I'm not particularly a De Niro fan (more a matter of the sorts of movies he's in) but he was excellent here as a guy who's trying his best to understand his kids, while his kids are busy hiding from him.

As the man says, you could do worse, and probably will.


  1. Although I agree that the film is mildly appealing maybe that's the problem. Almost from the first minute the film had low ambition written all over it. I wish I could come up with some specifics. All I know is that it was what I call a minor effort picture. Well, one specific is the very structure of the film: the visit to child #1 child #2 and here comes child #3, followed by the denouement. Formulaic.

    There was a particularly bad bit of film making in my opinion. The one child who he doesn't see, the artist son who has died in Mexico? After Deniro suffers his heart attack there's the moment when he "sees" that son (grown) from his hospital bed. It's supposed to be a heart rending moment of audience empathy, but any dramatist worth his salt would know that you can't expect an audience to feel anything about a character who they've never even seen until the moment when they're supposed to feel something about him.

    Okay, I see that I haven't said one good word about this film. And why should I? ;^)

  2. Heh. You shouldn't, if you didn't like it.

    I actually was touched by the scene, even though we hadn't seen the fourth kid.


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