By STEVE PERSALL
Times Film Critic
Robert De Niro hasn't done anything this decade to remind viewers of what a terrific actor he can be. Comedies playing off his tough-guy persona, and toothless reminders of how he earned that image 20 years ago, nearly made De Niro a whatever-happened-to topic before he's finished.
It's a thrill, then, seeing De Niro tackle his most challenging dramatic role since Awakenings in Everybody's Fine, a sturdy remake of an Italian flick that eventually turns treacly because, well, it's Italian. European films typically deal with sentimentality better than ours, a key reason why trans-Atlantic remakes usually don't work.
De Niro plays Frank Goode, a 60-something widower realizing he doesn't have much time left to make amends to his four children. They're grown now, but Frank still views them as children; it has been that long since he truly paid attention. He's introduced prepping for their first holiday visit since Mom died: tending his garden, vacuuming, shopping for steaks and wine. This reunion means a lot to Frank but it won't happen, not the way he planned.
First come the voice mails, transparent excuses why the kids can't make it. But only three. Where's Tom, the fourth child? The others know but aren't telling their father. We eavesdrop on their conversations, collecting tiny clues that something is very wrong. Meanwhile, Frank begins a risky trip to surprise everyone, carrying envelopes for each with unknown contents. He's the one who'll be surprised, and not pleasantly.
I won't spoil Everybody's Fine with its characters' confessional details. Suffice it to say that writer-director Kirk Jones — an Englishman, for the record — makes even predictable pathos interesting. Frank's offspring, played well by Kate Beckinsale, Drew Barrymore and Sam Rockwell, have relatively minor problems, and that's the point. Frank has ignored even their simplest details, letting his wife handle the harshest truths. Now that she's gone, the children won't depend on Frank to understand.
Yet Everybody's Fine entirely depends upon De Niro, an actor apparently raring to prove he still has it and does. De Niro pulls out all his serious acting tricks: pregnant pause expressions, the cagey way he makes each line sound discovered, body language that literally has Frank dragging his baggage behind him. Even in trite circumstances, De Niro makes Frank completely credible, and the movie becomes more real for it.
I also admire Jones' running use of telephone wires that Frank previously insulated for a living. They're first noticed when he's forcing a conversation with another traveler, then linking his children's secrets and finally as evidence of a bond that by then Frank considers irretrievably broken. Jones accomplishes the same with this imagery as De Niro's performance, simplicity transformed into complex results.
If only Everybody's Fine stuck to that melancholy course. Once Frank learns everyone's secrets, Jones has nowhere to go except a cliche medical crisis leading to poorly conceived near-death fantasy. It doesn't seem fair that such compelling, no-win family drama gets neatly wrapped up with a shiny bow for holiday tastes.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.