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Meet the Parent: Father does not know best when father is De Niro in Everybody's Fine



Don't be misled by the cheesy, generic poster for Kirk Jones' Everybody's Fine, in which a grinning Sam Rockwell, Drew Barrymore and Kate Beckinsale pose with Robert De Niro (airbrushed almost to the point of unrecognizable) for their characters' family photo in front of a Christmas tree. It's a marketing department's feeble feint: The four actors appear onscreen together for only a handful of minutes late in the movie — and it's no more a Christmas movie than Yentl.

Actually, this is writer-director Kirk Jones' retelling of Giuseppe Tornatore's Stanno tutti bene (1990), in which Marcello Mastroianni, his failing eyes made to look like tiny black dots behind thick glasses, traveled almost the entirety of Italy to surprise-visit his five grown children who, for one reason or another, couldn't make it home for a family reunion 'round the dinner table. It was an exquisite, lush (that scenery) and wholly naturalistic bit of filmmaking about the painful secrets children keep from their parents and how grownups will always view their offspring as fragile eight-year-olds in need of prodding. Tornatore, fresh off his glossy and nostalgic Cinema Paradiso, proffered something that felt like documentary; Stanno tutti bene contained moments so unflinching and intimate that you almost wanted to turn away and let the characters just share them in private. The bubbly feel-good of Cinema Paradiso had spoiled, and in its place was vinegar.

In a potentially inspired bit of casting, De Niro takes over the Mastroianni role, but his deadpan — intended to signify emptiness and ache — looks mostly like a somebody doing nothing. Mastroianni's mustache worked harder than De Niro does here. He plays Frank, a widower who spent his entire life breathing in toxic fumes at a plant that manufactured PVC coating for telephone wires. Why has Jones given him that job? Because it allows for copious cutaways to phone lines over which Frank's children — Robert (Rockwell), Rosie (Barrymore) and Amy (Beckinsale) — share grim news concerning their brother, David, an artist in Manhattan who has gone missing down Mexico way, one among many secrets they keep from their father in their mother's absence. It's a dreary gimmick: Rather than watching actors, um, act, we see instead a screen filled with phone wires, again and again and again. It's not a movie; it's an audiobook.

Frank, who lives in upstate New York, travels first to Manhattan to see David, who's not home. He lingers on the stoop for hours; nothing happens, save for a passing prostitute's half-hearted offer of a better way to kill a few hours. Frank's sleepy. We know how he feels. Then he's off, by bus, to Chicago to see Amy, a wildly successful ad exec who lives in a glass house perched on a lush hilltop. All's not well there, either: Amy's son, Jack (Lucian Maisel), isn't quite the straight-A student Mom had said he was, and the boy wants nothing to do with his father, whom he ignores over a takeout Chinese dinner. But Frank lets it go; better not to ruin the illusion, lest the glass house shatter and fall. "I tell you the good news," says Amy, "and spare you the bad." Frank rushes off; who has time to talk?

Next stop: Denver, where Robert's not an orchestra conductor, as advertised, but merely the guy banging the big drum in the back row. Father and son argue for a few moments: Robert says he only went into music for Frank; Frank says he wanted better for his boy than to hit a drum. And...scene. Finally, Frank heads to Las Vegas, where Rosie says she's working as a dancer in a big Bellagio show. She shows off her fancy pad overlooking the tourist palaces; she says, um, yeah, that baby is really a friend's. Frank knows better. Oh, but would you look at the time — gotta go, there's a dream sequence ahead. (And it's a low point in De Niro's career.)

So what's the point of all of this road-tripping to nowhere? Parents' best intentions often get the better of their children? Sons and daughters keep secrets from their parents? Fathers with blinders on can only pretend to know best? It's awfully hard to remake Tornatore and Alexander Payne's About Schmidt at the same time? Robert De Niro's only good at playing a dad in movies starring Ben Stiller? It's all so much raging bull.

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