Everybody's Fine is a quiet, light study in family dysfunction, a comedy-drama with no heroes or villains, just sad people who aren't necessarily telling the truth when somebody asks them, "Are you happy?"
That has become an important question to Frank Goode (Robert De Niro), a lonely, widowed retiree whose four adult children won't make the time to visit now that Mom has died. Frank's life was spent at the grindstone — coating telephone and electrical cables, something he's proud to point out on telephone poles to strangers. That's because those miles and miles of cable and the lung disease Frank got from the work put his kids in a position to do more interesting things for a living. "A lotta cable," he says of this one's orchestral career or that one's designer home.
Frank resolves to drop in on each of the four — surprise visits. They tell him "everybody's fine" on those rare occasions when he gets them on the phone. But he wants the truth.
Directed by Kirk Jones (Nanny McPhee), the movie never finds a tone that it's comfortable with. Frank amusingly bores fellow train and bus travelers with tales of his work and his family. Fellow retirees commiserate on kids who don't appreciate the sacrifices the parents had to make to get them where they are.
Contrast that with each visit to his offspring: Kate Beckinsale in Chicago, Drew Barrymore in Las Vegas, Sam Rockwell in Denver. Dad observes what the kids might have once told Mom, but not him.
"I tell you the good news and spare you the bad," Amy (Beckinsale) says, and the others, in turn, echo that. The movie has one open secret and a few "reveals" — including the kids' efforts to solve problems involving the sibling we don't meet.
The patient pace and subtle disappointment the kids feel about their lives, disappointment that they worry will be shared by Dad, makes for a movie of no cathartic confrontations. A contrived and melodramatic third act seems out of character and abrupt. And truthfully, there's little novel about the story of an aged parent trying to right the wrongs of his child-rearing years.
But De Niro, leaving his Meet the Parents comic ogre persona to Ben Stiller, makes Frank a man we neither pity nor blame, a gruff dad who remembers his stern past with a wince. His winning, thoughtful performance and matching work from those cast as his kids (each lifting his or her game) make this remake of Guiseppe Tornatore's 1990 Italian dramedy a tolerably sober alternative to holiday froth at the mutliplex.