DeNiro's as dad in holiday tearjerker

Posted: December 03, 2009

A good cast fights schmaltz to a draw in "Everybody's Fine," a holiday tear-jerker featuring Robert DeNiro as a dad trying to reconnect with his grown kids.

De Niro plays Frank Goode, a retiree and widower who's feeling his own mortality when he abruptly decides to visit his far-flung family in the weeks leading to Christmas - there's an artist in New York, an ad exec (Kate Beckinsale) in Chicago, a classical musician (Sam Rockwell) in Denver, a dancer (Drew Barrymore) in Las Vegas.

Frank, we learn, was the quintessential old-school dad, a breadwinner, task-master and disciplinarian whose late wife occupied the roles of confidante and provider of emotional support.

Now he's alone, with a bad heart, and he's determined to put in some quality time before it's too late. "Everybody's Fine" is heavy with a sense of Frank's delicate health and possible demise, but Frank keeps promising his kids that he won't die, and keeps his promise.

"Everybody's Fine" isn't manipulative in that way. It's manipulative in other ways. Like this one: everytime Frank sees one of his kids, the grown version dissolves and is replaced by the adorable six-year-old version still hopping, skipping and jumping in Frank's memory. Unfair! Every parent in the theater will be cursing director Kirk Jones as they honk their way through several dollars worth of Kleenex.

And who needs Kate Beckinsale to morph into a 6-year-old?

Anyway, envisioning them as youngsters doesn't bring Frank any closer to them. He's essentially thwarted in his mission to learn more about his children's lives - they're cagey about their circumstances and generally eager to pass him along to the next brother or sister.

They're uncomfortable around their father, but it's more than that - they're concealing something, the nature of which isn't fully revealed until the tear-streaked final moments, when Jones lays it on extra-thick, and all of the flashback children reappear being cute and irresistible.

I suppose there's some truth in that. When we see our children in our mind's eye, we see them in an idealized way, hula-hooping in a guazy soft-focus haze.

We don't think of them cursing their homework, or throwing a tantrum, or dumping their peas on the floor.

If we did, when we retired we'd never visit them at all.

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