The guiding formal principle of the new Robert De Niro movie Everybody's Fine, an uninspired remake of a sticky Italian melodrama from 1990 by Giuseppe Tornatore, seems to be: "Why imply it with emotion when you can scream it with sentiment?" The film stars De Niro as the newly widowed Frank Goode, an elderly yet wily patriarch of a classically dysfunctional American family, one that prizes professional success over personal happiness. Frank is a retired blue-collar worker with fibrosis on his lungs and four grown-up children on his mind. When each of the children bows gracefully out of his first Thanksgiving dinner since their mother's death, he takes decisive action and plans, against his doctor's orders, a transcontinental road trip that will ping him from child to child via New York, Chicago, Denver and Las Vegas. His mission, thus, is to reunite his family, and perhaps ultimately right the wrongs that were once committed in his younger, more headstrong parenting days.
Here, typically, we know that Frank loves his children because at each stop along the way, whenever he catches sight of each adult offspring approaching, he pictures them - courtesy of Kirk Jones's vulgar, gauzy flashback effect - as their six-year-old selves. This trope is initially indulgent when applied to his daughter Amy (Kate Beckinsale), a wealthy advertising executive who lives in a giant postmodern edifice in the Chicago suburbs, and who comes charging past her own luxury pool as a teeny tot, only to be transformed at the last minute into an adult. When the same effect is applied to Frank's second child, Robert (Sam Rockwell), with another gauzy kiddie run, it becomes discomfiting and saccharine. By the time this device is applied to his youngest daughter, Rosie (Drew Barrymore, an actress who can gush with the best of them, even without a pre-teen incarnation), it has become an unforgivably mawkish device, suitable only for TV commercials.
The plot too is wholly driven into the dead end of sentiment when Frank, at the culmination of four essentially fruitless visits (each child rejects him, sending him onto the next), collapses on the plane home and has a dreamlike encounter with his children in their early years. In fact, practically the entire third act of the movie is one long and interminable tear-jerking climax. It features hospital tragedies and graveside orations that are poorly written, weakly performed and designed solely to milk maximum empathetic value from Frank's emotionally loaded situation. Naturally, in this syrupy climate, a comforting Christmas finale at Frank's house, full of gurning smiles, is missing only the flashing inter-title: "We all love each other so much now! Honest!"
Which is a shame, because there is much to appreciate, at first, in this movie. The early scenes share the same acerbic tone as Alexander Payne's About Schmidt. The meaningless drudgery of Frank's daily routine is conveyed with a brutal efficiency. Here vacuuming, gardening and carefully drinking a glass of water before bed are shown as grey, meaningless activities in Frank's grey, meaningless life. While, equally, the decision to portray Frank's working life as thoroughly unglamorous (he coated telephone wire with PVC) is clever character shorthand when the obvious choices would have been to make him an ex-cop or ex-soldier.
In all this De Niro is familiarly underwhelming. He has, of course, been flying on autopilot for well over a decade now (1995's Heat was possibly his last great turn). And yet there are moments here that recall his genius. When he arrives in Denver, for instance, to the concert hall where Robert, a lowly percussionist, is rehearsing, the two men lock eyes for a moment, from opposite sides of the room. De Niro's eyes, however, flicker briefly away from Robert and over to the conductor's podium, the place where he obviously always imagined his son would end up. It's a tiny moment, and an even tinier gesture, but there is more said about the complexity of Frank's feelings (his bitter disappointments as well as his hopes) in that one fired look than there is in all the showy, stirring, tear-jerking scenes that inevitably follow. In short, it's the sort of cinematic moment that lets you know just how good De Niro's choices can sometimes be, and just how low some movies can sometimes stoop.