Every holiday season needs to have some sort of family get-together on the big screen. Last year we had the surprisingly good Nothing Like the Holidays. This year we get the flawed yet highly effective Everybody's Fine with Robert De Niro taking his turn as the family's focal point. This movie affected me so much more than I was expecting. Of course, those emotional moments were tempered by its distracting flaws as I kept thinking of better ways the necessary exposition could have been handled. Fortunately, there was enough good stuff in there for me to walk out happy for the experience.
Everybody's Fine is not a movie that everyone is going to like. It may be a touch too overwrought at times and other times it may just feel a little bit silly. I think what will truly inform your ability to enjoy this film, or get it at any meaningful level, will be your life experience. I have found that your personal life experience can be an important tool to bring with you into the movie theater. Much has been said about critics being objective. I do not necessarily believe this to be a good thing. I am not saying that we should not be optimistic and open to what the movie offers, but that is only part of it. What are we if not a collection of experiences which foster biases? Everybody has them, it is natural, we must use them properly with respect to movies. If I do not use my unique experience in my evaluation, what good am I? Trying to be completely objective would just end up watering down my opinion, rendering it meaningless. Now, as interesting as this is, this is more a conversation for another time and place. Suffice to say my experiences informed my level of involvement with Everybody's Fine.
At the center of the story is Frank Goode (Robert De Niro). Frank is a retired factory worker, where he spent his days coating phone lines with that protective sheath. The father of four was recently widowed and is home alone. Bored and lonely with the holidays approaching, he puts together a family reunion at his home. He cleans up, goes and buys wine and steaks, only to have all of the children cancel at the last moment.
This cancellation sends Frank out on the road, by train as a lung condition precludes air travel. He is determined to visit all of his children who are spread all the way across the country. Each successive stop reveals something about his children that he did not know. It turns out their lives are not quite as sunny as he believed them to be.
It is not an unfamiliar story. Person goes on a journey that leads to self-discovery and reevaluation of oneself leading to a greater truth about his life and relationships to those closest to him. His journey, partially spurred on by his loneliness, made me think of those I have lost. I have lost a grandmother and grandfather over the past few years, both tragic events. It made me think of the loneliness that my grandmother felt after losing her husband. It seemed to be reflected in Frank, who seemed desperate for the company — never wanting to intrude, but wanting that interaction, the connection with another human being.
My feelings for my loss as well as that of my loved ones made me connect with Frank's journey. It is a moving tale. This man has lost the love of his life and has learned that she did more for him than he knew.
What really makes it work is Robert De Niro's performance. He does not so much act the role so much as he inhabits it. It is not a performance of affectations, it is a performance of subtlety. De Niro's Frank slowly grows over the course of the film, allowing the news to change him. It is believable, it is real. Even when many of the events around him do not seem real, De Niro's performance centers everything. If you stay with him, the movie will stay with you.
The film is far from perfect. There is exposition that is clunky and feels out of place. There is a subplot that involves one of the children that is revealed through phone conversations in between visits. It feels unnatural, a tool used by the filmmaker to tie everything together that ends up dragging everything down. I could not help but think it was not necessary and could have been done more gracefully through dialogue with Frank involved. We, the audience, did not need to know those connecting conversations. The end result is awkward and lessens the emotional impact.
Bottom line. The movie is not a great one and I suspect I will be one of the few that liked it. De Niro's performance kept me involved. His emotional journey became my emotional journey, conveying this great sadness. Fortunately, the majority of the film lies squarely on his shoulders. It is definitely worth the effort.