Here’s a film that could’ve been, should’ve been brilliant. Imagine the meeting: let’s do a watered down About Schmidt, with a watered down de Niro, trying to connect with his watered-down kids. And he realises, bit by bit, that great truth he never knew because his recently dead wife did all the connecting: kids lie. All of them. Well, the smart ones at least. The dumb ones blurt out things like, “I didn’t crash the car at the supermarket. Near the recycling bins. Last Tuessssssdayyyyyyyy – oh fuck.” Looking at you, Steve.
De Niro plays Frank Goode (really), an ex blue-collar who spent decades sheathing telegraph wires with protective…stuff. He’s proud of this as it put food on the table, educated and housed his family. It also allows the film to track lovingly along them, beating us with the metaphor, as we listen in on the phone calls between his kids. They have a secret, it’s an emergency, and their group cancellation of a weekend with Daddy de Niro makes him hit the road… Perhaps, deep down, he knows the old lie: Everybody’s Fine.
It’s an odd thing to see a de Niro without his contained-bastard acting. He’s suddenly a soft, lost, middle-aged man looking adrift in the trains, stations, lorry parks and railway stations he is forced to visit. He hits New York first, looking for artist son David, but David is out. His art, mind you, is in – downstairs in a gallery. The art is big and Picassoish; much like the cheap end of the brown-stone steps that make de Niro look tiny in the night. He leaves an envelope under his son’s door and trundles on. We, if not him, know something is wrong.
He pads around his other children, leaving the envelopes as he goes:
Kate Beckinsale is Amy, an advertising executive in a freakishly modern house with ramshackle husband and angry teenage son. Lucian Maisel scowls and charms as Jack, thrashing his grandpa at golf (a brief moment of early de Niro sneaks through in the swearing…) and openly resenting his father. Amy practically hurls Frank out-of-town for she has somewhere to get to. James Frain, not playing the husband, pitches up at the station and old Jack started to wonder whether Frank was supposed to be putting the obvious weirdness together.
And on to the musician son. Sam Rockwell as Robert gives vague and offhand as an orchestral drummer (percussionist, okay) who de Niro thought was a conductor…
And on to the splendidly likeable and easily most camera-loved Drew Barrymore as Rosie in Vegas. A putative dance in a show, she has her friend’s baby, and her friend is pretty obvious a lady who loves ladies, and… oh come on! Mad Maud was smiling sweetly when the swearing burst out of old Jack. The conversation went along the lines of…
Maud: Such a sweet family. He has such lovely children. I wonder how this will end.
Old Jack: Oh, for fuck’s sake.
Frank has to get mugged, lose his medication, risk a don’t-fly-you-dope-it’ll-kill-you flight before the stress of the lies gets to him and the kids have to come clean. Mad Maud was stunned.
The film runs a sweet beat throughout – each one of his offspring is met by Frank as a memory of them as a child, spouting their grown-up fibs. This culminates in a lost opportunity: de Niro at a table with all the children as children. They chat. He accuses. But not enough. Not angrily enough. For the great secret of his family has been obvious from the off: one parent got the real them, the other was kept at arms’ length. Now…react, Frank!!!
Everybody’s Fine is heart-warming and safe. The final scene, a return to that art gallery in New York, had old Jack sobbing like he’d trapped a bollock. The faintly tiresome metaphor that tracked through the film turned out to have teeth. The cast do a great job, but the conceit traps them. They are hiding facts and personalities from de Niro, so have nowhere much to go. When they admit the truth to their father, I can’t say I knew them any better. Or cared to.
Best bit? Frank misses a train and gets a lift from Melissa Leo as Colleen the lorry-driver. There’s a touch of the Clarence Odbodys about her, but she is what she seems and has a top-quality accidental flirt with the otherwise dazed de Niro. Oh, the relief!
iTunes awaits, parents of liars. Give it a go if you want to know what’s in Frank’s envelopes…