Directed by: Kirk Jones (Nanny McPhee)
Starring: Robert De Niro, Drew Barrymore, Kate Beckinsale, Sam Rockwell, Lucian Maisel
Much as I dislike the word “dramedy”— it sounds like a breed of camel— nothing else describes Kirk Jones’ Everybody’s Fine quite so well. It doesn’t feel like a comedy with drama or a drama with comedy. It feels like some fake hybrid, a phony construction—probably because that’s what it is. As comedy, it’s never very funny (and that’s being kind). As drama, it’s never particularly effective. It’s more like some clockwork mechanism where a section has been cut away so that we can see the gears move. That might be briefly interesting, but not for 100 minutes. (Was it really only 100 minutes long?)
Though marketed as a Christmas movie on the theory that at this time of year you can peddle the most egregious twaddle to the multiplexers if you make it seasonal (think of last year’s Four Christmases), Everybody’s Fine is only marginally related to the yuletide. It’s just a dysfunctional family-story/road-trip movie strung together with wire (literally) that winds up at Christmas during the last few minutes of the movie. The premise is that Frank Goode (Robert De Niro) is a recent widower with some vaguely explained, plot-centric respiratory condition, who decides—against his doctor’s advice, of course—to drop in on his four children unannounced when they all suddenly “can’t” come to his planned family reunion.
This allows the film not only to move from upstate New York to New York City to Chicago to Denver to Las Vegas, but it allows Frank to have (very) little adventures along the way and meet up with quirky, wise or dangerous sorts in the bargain. This means Frank gets to offer us expository dialogue by explaining how a life of coating telephone cable with PVC paid for his children’s educations—and somehow gave him his mystery ailment. Unfortunately, this also sets up a recurring motif where the camera gazes at phone lines and poles while we get to listen to Frank’s children discuss Dad’s visit and explore the mystery of their errant brother who has gone missing south of the border down in Mexico. It was perhaps more economical to tack on an extra day of voice work, but it feels more like a dubious stylistic decision.
It becomes obvious early on that Everybody’s Fine isn’t going to run the risk of surprising the viewer at any point. Frank will find that all is not well with his children. Their successes are a fiction maintained not to upset him. Amy (Kate Beckinsale) has a marriage gone bad, symphony conductor Robert (Sam Rockwell) isn’t really a conductor, and Vegas dancer Rosie (Drew Barrymore) has four or five closets full of skeletons. Once you realize—if the trailer hadn’t tipped you off already—where all this has to go, watching the movie becomes a matter of marking time to get to the warmly desired closing credits—complete with über-twee Paul McCartney’s (please stop this, you’ve got your knighthood) ending song.
The results aren’t so much painful as painfully perfunctory. I was almost mesmerized by how brazenly writer-director Kirk Jones telegraphed the film’s every move. The only exception is the jaw-droppingly bad fantasy sequence (or sick-bed delirium) late in the film where Frank talks to his adult children in their child-like forms around a picnic table. (Think the schoolchildren in Annie Hall minus intentional laughs.) Even that nonsense was hinted at by Frank’s tendency to envision his children as he remembers them from their childhood. I think it was intended to be terribly moving, but it failed.
The acting is all over the place. Kate Beckinsale is her usual indistinct self. Drew Barrymore gets by on her innate ability to make the audience like her by appearing more sincere than the material warrants. Sam Rockwell comes off best, and I suspect this is the result of Jones tapping into the actor’s sweet-faced innocence and using it to good advantage. What of De Niro? Well, I’ve seen his performance called “restrained” and “minimalist,” which in this case feels like a nice way of saying he sleepwalks through the role. OK, so it’s not as embarrassing as Al Pacino’s performance in 88 Minutes (2008), but neither is it as entertaining. Rated PG-13 for thematic elements and brief strong language.