Much of Kirk Jones' family-reconciliation drama "Everybody's Fine" takes place on steadily moving trains, Greyhounds and 18-wheelers, appropriately enough for a film that moves reliably and ineluctably toward a well-mapped denouement. Though a bit too artful to merit the pejorative "tearjerker" label, the film is rigorously streamlined to deliver a good emotional uppercut by the end, and purely on the strength of its craft, it connects. But aside from an atypically mannered Robert De Niro, there's very little new to see along the way. Box office should be respectable for the Dec. 4 Miramax release.
Helmer-scripter Jones adapted "Everybody's Fine" from Giuseppe Tornatore's 1990 original, and the two directors prove highly compatible counterparts. For one, Jones shares Tornatore's total lack of embarrassment with sentimentality and stock character types; Jones' 1998 debut, "Waking Ned Devine," deftly skirted the boundary where stereotypes cross over into archetypes. To call that film cliched or predictable would be entirely accurate yet also miss the point.
So, too, with "Everybody's Fine." The trouble here is that while "Waking Ned Devine" had an entire town's worth of quirky characters to help move the narrative along, this single-character-driven piece needs room to breathe, and Jones never allows it (or the audience) to forget its ultimate destination; this may be the tautest, most regimented movie ever made about a meandering road trip. Like Tornatore, Jones is also an extremely literal filmmaker, and when he intercuts scenes with footage of cross-country telephone wires or small talk about a huge gathering storm in the Atlantic, the symbolic functions of both are so straightforward that they almost cease to be metaphors.
Thus, responsibility for providing the film's complexity falls to De Niro (taking over the role played by Marcello Mastroianni in the original), and he mostly delivers. While his elderly traveling widower, Frank Goode, has shades of Jack Nicholson's Warren Schmidt (and a few overcooked scenes), it's nonetheless a role De Niro makes his own, and possibly his first to evoke sincere, unironic goodness. The simmering rage and restless anxiety of his best roles are totally absent here, as is the hamming of his more recent outings; in their place is a quiet, contemplative intensity that suggests an inner life to the character beyond the machinations of the script.
Alone at the beginning except for Perry Como on the soundtrack, Frank prepares for a planned reunion with his four adult children -- their first meeting since the death of their mother eight months prior. He soon receives a barrage of phone calls from his kids, all of whom cancel at the last minute. After a quick visit to his doctor (who warns him not to travel), Frank impulsively sets off to surprise his children in their homes, conspicuously packing four envelopes, all of which may just as well be stamped with "Do not open until final reel."
First on the list is youngest son David, a painter living in a disreputable New York neighborhood. The evidently cell phone-less Frank waits outside his door all night and, when David fails to show up, leaves an envelope under his door and heads on his way.
Next is Amy (Kate Beckinsale) in Chicago, an ad agency owner with a palatial home and seemingly consequent marriage problems, then slacker classical musician Robert (Sam Rockwell) in Denver, and finally Las Vegas dancer Rosie (Drew Barrymore). While Frank is between destinations, we hear the three on the phone with one another, slowly spilling details about David's whereabouts -- which they conspire to keep secret from their father, who concurrently begins to realize how much his children left out in their idealized descriptions of their own lives to him.
Rockwell, Beckinsale and Barrymore are in fine form here, though they have precious little to do. Rockwell fares best, perhaps because his segment of the film has no obvious sociopolitical points to make, while Beckinsale is saddled with some of the film's more stilted dialogue, her character serving as little more than the proverbial career woman with a troubled family life. Melissa Leo has even less of a chance to leave an impression in her quick scene as a truck driver.
Henry Braham's photography is quite strong, unobtrusively capturing the particular melancholy of bus terminals, chain hotel lobbies and roadside scenery. Other tech elements are above average.