Emotional manipulation is customary in holiday family movies, where the norm tends toward morality tales with pat endings or tearjerkers with object lessons. But there's a limit to the strong-arming a viewer's sympathies can take, and Everybody's Fine deserves a box of Kleenex less than it needs a faceful of Mace. Written and directed by Kirk Jones, this well-acted but maudlin domestic drama twists and tugs at the heart so much it loses its power to shock, surprise or move.
Some of that sap may have leaked out of the source material, a 1990 film by Cinema Paradiso director Giuseppe Tomatore that starred Marcello Mastroianni as a traveling widower seeking out his grown kids. The role is handled here by Robert De Niro, one of the only actors alive capable of filling Mastroianni's shoes. Always a commanding, stately presence, De Niro brings strength, conviction and passion to the part, elevating sappy scenes and weepy lines. But even he can't salvage contrivances that will make all but the most ardent sentimentalists cringe.
De Niro portrays Frank Goode, an aging boomer who always put his family first, yet never understood the difference between urging his kids to do their best and putting unfair demands and pressure on them. His beloved wife served as intermediary and buffer throughout their marriage, and without her Goode is battling loneliness and health problems. With the holidays approaching, he invites his four adult children to visit, but all of them decline politely but firmly at the last moment.
Opting to surprise them—rather than demanding to know what's wrong, as would, say, a resident of planet Earth—Goode undertakes an unannounced odyssey by bus, train and even plane to visit each child at home. What he discovers is just how much he's been shielded from disappointment by his wife and children, who've gone to great (one might say ridiculous) lengths to keep him in the dark. It seems none of his kids turned out as hunky-dory as he thought, and each has peculiar and sticky problems—the least of which are marital difficulties and drumming.
The movie would be over in five minutes if Goode ever asked one of his clearly suspicious offspring what they're obviously not telling him. Instead, writer-director Jones (Waking Ned Devine) keeps shuttling De Niro from one outpost of anguish to the next, using the tortured irony of telephone lines (part of Goode's old occupation) as a linking device. At each stop, De Niro shines whether expressing surprise, disappointment, regret or even anger: He gives off the same workingman's dignity he brought to his 1993 directorial debut A Bronx Tale.
As the first two children, though, Kate Beckinsale and Sam Rockwell are all but defeated by the plot machinery and their daytime-TV caliber dialogue. It's left to them to try to make the siblings' exasperating behavior believable while moving Dad on to the next heartbreak. Far better is Drew Barrymore, who emerges as the ensemble's second strongest performer. Her character has the most convincingly confused reaction to her father, and Barrymore's attentive underplaying brings out some of De Niro's warmest, most subtle acting.
The movie's most engaging in some of its least plot-demanded moments—such as Goode hitching a ride with a female trucker (Melissa Leo) while their conversation veers toward aging and the hits life dishes out. It's heavy on big statements, but the rapport between De Niro and the always welcome Leo makes you wish the scene would dawdle a little longer. By contrast, an incident where a junkie (Brendan Sexton III) attacks Goode in a railroad station reeks of plot advancement and Gran Torino-style "kids today" tut-tutting.
Competently directed, redeemed at times by its acting, Everybody's Fine can't be brushed off as a turkey—which in a sense makes it harder to take. A viewer can resent the movie's assault on the tear ducts and still feel helpless to resist it, just because it touches upon issues, emotions and insecurities anyone faces, parent or child. But as grim holiday experience shows, you can still catch yourself humming along with "Jingle Bells," even when it's being barked by dogs.