Robert De Niro is arguably the finest living film actor, but even he can be categorized. In a movie career dating back to 1965, De Niro has specialized in character, disappearing into his roles and making us believe, for a couple of typically intense hours, that he’s a psychotic cabbie or a haunted boxer or a cartage thief or a doomed baseball player or a Catholic priest with a guilty secret.
Somewhere along the line, after some false starts, De Niro broadened out and made a sideline in comedy. He turned out to be good at it. Wag the Dog, the Analyze This movies, the Meet the Parents/Meet the Fockers series — De Niro’s comic appeal is that he’s a guy who could easily break your legs, but that he’s suddenly caught in a strange situation and is slightly befuddled, so we can safely laugh at the incongruity. There’s almost always a sense of menace at the heart of his characters.
And they’re usually just that: characters. De Niro doesn’t project much of a Clint Eastwood- or Cary Grant-style screen persona in which every role becomes an extension of himself. Bobby D, in common with Laurence Olivier, Dustin Hoffman, Heath Ledger, and other commanding male character leads, is famous for changing shape to fit the part. He simply does it better than practically anyone else. Over time his physical mannerisms — the vocal rhythms and body language and even the mole on his cheek — have branded each of his creations, so that we can say: “That’s a real De Niro character” (Casino, Heat, Jackie Brown, etc.) or “That was too much of a stretch” (The Mission, The Last Tycoon, We’re No Angels).
Which brings us to Everybody’s Fine. It’s a remake of the 1990 Italian light drama Stanno tutti bene, directed by Giuseppe Tornatore, about a mild-mannered and very lonely middle-aged man, played by Marcello Mastroianni, who drops in on his grown children and discovers that they’re as emotionally adrift as he is. That sort of wistful family story, sentimental and humorous and rough around the edges all at the same time, is very popular in Italy — they practically invented the genre. But the American version, directed by Kirk Jones (Waking Ned Devine) from his adaptation of the original screenplay by Massimo De Rita and Tonino Guerra, gives us the willies. Something is a little bit off.
Frank (De Niro) is a recent widower quietly going crazy in the bland suburban house he once shared with his late wife. His lungs are giving him trouble, his life is winding down, and he desperately wants to have his four adult children come back home for one last family cookout, the way they did in the old days. But none of them can make it — just too busy, fake-sounding copouts, long-distance regrets. So Frank takes off on one of those cross-country trips we’ve seen so often, wandering through a strange America in search of his estranged kids and coming up with, generally, a handful of air.
Frank’s first stop is New York City, where his least-communicative son is an artist. No one at home. We are shown that the son no longer lives in that empty apartment, but Frank didn’t know that. Next stop is a nifty home in the Chicago burbs, where daughter Amy (Kate Beckinsale) and her young son, Jack (Lucian Maisel), spend a lot of time waiting for Amy’s husband to show up. Grandpa gets in a little golf practice with Jack, but things aren’t gelling and Frank moves on.
In Las Vegas, daughter Rosie (Drew Barrymore) is supposedly a successful dancer with a fabulous condo overlooking the Strip. “Supposedly,” because things with the children are never actually what daddy Frank has been told, including the presence of “the neighbor’s baby boy,” Max, in Rosie’s flat. A couple more sad “supposedlies” later, Frank, somewhat worse for wear, has visited his “orchestra-conductor” son Robert (Sam Rockwell) in San Diego and concluded that none of his offspring is telling him the truth, let alone what he really wants to hear. So he goes home disillusioned and ends up talking to his wife’s grave.
If Frank’s maudlin little odyssey sounds like an About Schmidt trip, you’re right. It runs a poor second to that story, however, for reasons that have something to do with De Niro’s performance compared to Jack Nicholson’s, but more to do with writing and storytelling. Italy is not the United States. Maybe we’re still too Anglo-Saxon or something after all these years, but Frank’s pathetic “making of the rounds” with his kids takes itself a tad too seriously for comfort. It needs the touch of an Alexander Payne. An ironic sense of humor is called for.
Frank wears his disappointment on his sleeve a little too ostentatiously. Also, the details of his life don’t gibe with the De Niro we’ve come to expect. For instance, how could Robert De Niro live in such a namby-pamby house and delight in grilling steaks for such ungrateful brats? He’s played schnooks before — a dull working stiff in Stanley & Iris with Jane Fonda, a meek crime-scene technician in Mad Dog and Glory opposite Uma Thurman, a humble bus driver in A Bronx Tale — but there was always an edge to the characters. That edge is conspicuously lacking in Frank.
Take the scene in which kindhearted Frank, trying to make a connection in Reno late one night, stops to give a few dollars to a man passed out on a walkway. Instead of being thankful, the guy, evidently a junkie, tries to roll Frank for the rest of his wad. Doesn’t the junkie realize he’s dealing with Travis Bickle? Is it possible to believe that anyone with De Niro’s eyes could hallucinate entire scenes of greeting-card family life from Frank’s past? In the end, we cannot accept the pathos. On Mastroianni traipsing around Italy it may have looked good, but for De Niro, bruited about deceitfully on the road through Middle America, it’s just too much. De Niro wears victimhood awkwardly. Cold-hearted, isolated American life spits Frank out the way it never could with fellow over-the-hill everyman Warren Schmidt.
Barrymore wins the supporting-acting derby among Frank’s kids. In her face, she expresses all the poignant, messy regret that Beckinsale and Rockwell can only caricature. Kudos as well to Melissa Leo as the female trucker who takes pity on Frank and gives him a lift. Somehow we buy those characters and resist buying poor, humorless Frank. Maybe if he’d gotten into a motel hot tub with Thandie Newton.