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Review: De Niro terrific in OK 'Everybody's Fine'

By Tom Charity, Special to CNN
Robert De Niro gets some surprises when he visits his children in "Everybody's Fine."
Robert De Niro gets some surprises when he visits his children in "Everybody's Fine."
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Robert De Niro gives an excellent performance in "Everybody's Fine"
  • Film suffers a bit from formula, but there are some nice sequences, Tom Charity says
  • Film is middlebrow type Hollywood seldom makes, so enjoy it while you can
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(CNN) -- It's what we tell friends and family for their own peace of mind: Everybody's fine, and there is nothing to worry about.

Sometimes, it's at least half true, but usually the reality is more complicated; "fine" is a comforter you can wrap around a whole mess of trouble.

This is what Frank Goode (Robert De Niro) discovers rather late in life. Recently widowed, he's hoping that his four grown children will visit him for Thanksgiving, along with their spouses and the grandkids. One by one, they all call off, and so he decides to defy doctor's orders and surprise each of them in turn, embarking on a bus and train trip that will take him halfway across the country.

The first stop is New York, where his older son, David, is an artist. Frank finds no one home. Ah, well, he turns west and shows up unannounced at Amy's multimillion-dollar dream house.

An advertising executive, Amy (Kate Beckinsale) is obviously doing well for herself, though his grandson Jack (Lucian Maisel) scoffs when Frank compliments him on his excellent school reports, and there is an undertow of tension in the house. Worse, they're too busy to offer him hospitality for more than a night.

Undeterred, he looks forward to reconnecting with Robert (Sam Rockwell), an orchestra conductor, and Rosie (Drew Barrymore), a dancer.

Aren't these creative high-achievers a little too good to be true? Well, maybe they are at that. As his journey progresses, he starts to see that his late wife sheltered him from the kind of news she thought he didn't want to hear.

A remake of a 1990 film of the same name, which starred Marcello Mastroianni and was directed by Giuseppe Tornatore ("Cinema Paradiso"), "Everybody's Fine" works well enough in an American context, even if we have to concede that Frank's single-minded determination that his kids shall become great artists is unusual in a blue-collar dad.

I guess there are still sexagenarians who don't carry cell phones and don't keep tabs on their kids through social media, but it seems a little strange that such a proud and motivated parent wouldn't follow his offspring's achievements more closely in later life. Isn't that the return on his investment?

Still, writer-director Kirk Jones ("Waking Ned Devine") gets a lot of the little things right. There's a nice touch when Jack takes his grandfather's case and automatically opens up the retractable handle the old man didn't know was there, for instance, and another scene with the suitcase when Frank obliviously irritates an entire orchestra as he bumps through an empty concert hall to watch his son rehearse.

De Niro seems more engaged by this role than he has for some time. It's a quiet, dignified, unfussy performance; Frank is a good man who pushed too hard and then not enough. De Niro is arguably a little young and robust, but he unwraps the film's comic gifts with subtle care, and he brings out the best in the rest of the cast. Rockwell, especially, makes the most of the brief scenes he's granted.

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In a sentimental conceit that comes straight from the Italian movie, Frank sees his kids not just as they are but as they were. It's an affecting ploy -- until Jones overplays his hand in a dream sequence so loaded with revelation, there's no need for a psychiatric interpretation.

Manipulative it may be, and contrived, but there is some truth in it too. This is the kind of middlebrow melodrama those in the know keep saying Hollywood isn't interested in making anymore. Given that it was produced by Miramax, the Disney subsidiary that recently shed most of its staff and president Daniel Battsek (who leaves in the New Year), they're probably right.

You might want to pay your respects while you still can.

"Everybody's Fine" is rated PG-13 and runs 95 minutes. For Entertainment Weekly's review, click here.