Robert DeNiro hasn't exactly made it easy to be a Robert DeNiro fan over the last decade or so. Sure, he makes a good film every now and again (The Good Shepard is solid, and The Score is trashily enjoyable), but for every one of those, there's three disappointments like Meet the Fockers or What Just Happened, and a couple of embarrassments like Showtime or (God help us all) Righteous Kill. DeNiro himself is seldom out-and-out bad (okay, he's pretty terrible in Stardust), but there's something missing in his work of late--you don't see the fire in his eyes, the passion of the playing. He's phoning it in at best, sleepwalking for paychecks at worst.
His new picture, Everybody's Fine, has some problems, but let this be said: It's the best work he's done in years. His portrait of late-life loneliness is poignant yet understated, touching but restrained. What's more, he's surrounded by a cast of talented young actors, each of whom appears to be valuing the opportunity to work with a living legend; they bring their A-game, and consequently, you see their skill energizing him.
DeNiro plays Frank, a widower who is not close to his now-grown children; in a heartbreaking opening sequence, he is seen making elaborate preparations for a weekend visit by all four of the kids, who then cancel out, last minute, one by one. Though his doctor won't let him travel due to recent health woes, Frank decides to hit the road, paying a surprise visit to each of his offspring. He comes to discover that he's been getting edited, rose-colored versions of their lives, and that perhaps he may not have been the ideal father that he fancied himself to be.
If it sounds familiar, that's because it is; there's a feeling, as the narrative kicks into gear, that DeNiro badly wishes he'd been cast in About Schmidt. It is, in fact, a remake, though not of that film (the source material is Giuseppe Tornatore's Stanno Tutti Bene), but it has a vibe of its own. Directed with smooth professionalism by Kirk Jones (Waking Ned Devine), who also adapted the screenplay, Everybody's Fine often has the warmth and glow of a comfort food movie.
But it's more complicated than that--it's not afraid of the dysfunctional family dynamic it is exploring. Early in the film, Frank visits his daughter Amy (Kate Beckinsale), and sits down for a dinner with her, her husband, and her son. Relations are clearly strained, for reasons we've just begun to guess at, and the discomfort of all parties involved are palpable--and relatable to just about anyone watching. His visit to son Robert (Sam Rockwell) is nearly as awkward; Robert's been slightly exaggerating his station in life to dear old dad, and the truth clearly disappoints Frank, who hides it badly. Rockwell and DeNiro play off each other beautifully here, even if some of the dialogue is a bit too on the nose (there's perhaps too much surface and not quite enough subtext for their scenes to play one hundred percent truthfully).
After a too-brief appearance by Melissa Leo as a friendly truck driver, Frank arrives in Las Vegas, where he's met by his other daughter Rosie, played by Drew Barrymore. She's just perfect, and her effortlessness with DeNiro and the ease of their body language belies a special closeness; we don't have to be told that she's daddy's little girl, which makes the breadth of her secrets all the more surprising. All of these hints and clues of their private revelations lead to a very tricky climactic scene late in the film, a sort of fantasy/fever dream/nightmare sequence that could have gone wrong in about a million ways, and manages to sidestep all of them. It takes daring to take a whack at a scene like that and risk looking silly; it turns out to be an inspired and powerful storytelling device.
The picture treads into some serious emotional waters at that point, and most of it plays well--you only wish Dario Marianelli's browbeating score wasn't laying it on so thick (the acting and the text are strong enough). The closing passages may be unabashedly sentimental, but they're not manipulative, as so many lesser family crisis dramas can be. Those scenes play--by that point, the film's genuine emotions are honest and earned. Everybody's Fine isn't quite a great movie, but it is a very, very good one, intelligently made and sensitively played, a lovely film in a very minor key.