ARTS

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December 14, 2009

Almost everything is wrong with Everybody's Fine

What can be more obsolete nowadays than telephone lines? Do people even tie those up anymore? Aren’t we all globally linked by satellites and mobile phones? In fact, do people even talk anymore? Isn’t the text message the universal form of communication? It seems that a world so connected and readily available is simultaneously isolated and detached, hiding behind mobile emailing, texting, and voice mail. Years ago, when you made a call, you purposefully made it. House phones could move only as far from the wall as the cord it was attached to would allow it. Before caller ID and voice mail, you didn’t know who was calling with bad news or good news. Similarly, a movie like Everybody’s Fine is far from the modern communication age. By using telephone lines to emphasize its film, it’s a film that thinks it’s still 1995, a time before widespread cell phone use and before Scream subtly suggested that we just let the phone ring and pretend nobody is home.

Indeed, Everybody’s Fine, a remake of the 1990 Italian film Stanno tutti bene, seems to have been written in the '90s, maybe in 1995 when my mother’s cordless crackled and died when you left the front porch. The script must have been filed away in a drawer until the 2007 WGA strike forced producers to extract its dusty, crinkled, yellowing pages and attempt a slapdash update. A dispiriting flatline of a film, it’s trying to be About Schmidt meets The Family Stone, with about as much depth as the kiddie pool Robert DeNiro is filling in the opening credits. It’s a throwaway family drama incorrectly marketed for Christmas audiences, dripping with sentimentality, and culminates in a weightless climax easily divined within the first ten minutes.

Widower and patriarch Frank (DeNiro), sick with a lung illness after spending his life coating telephone lines (oh, the irony!) with PVC, drops in on three of his super busy offspring after they fail to visit him for a summer get-together. The big secret we learn through voice-over telephone conversations is the fourth and youngest sibling is in trouble in Mexico, and his siblings were too busy keeping that secret to come home for a visit. All of them are equally loath to reveal their own problems to their father, instead falling back on the default response: “I’m fine.”

So instead of presenting any kind of conflict for the characters or the audience to grapple with, the film simply ferries DeNiro from one sibling to the next with most of the screen time devoted to his aimless travels, moping, and a late-night mugging. Despite his trips to notable cities like Chicago, New York, and Las Vegas, no attempt is made to make a travelogue. We spend more time musing with a lifeless DeNiro about telephone lines, his medicine, and his fond memories of his kids than we do confronting the tenuous conflicts hinted at by his children or exploring the locales he’s stuck in. We get ten minutes with Kate Beckinsale, ten with Sam Rockwell, and ten with Drew Barrymore. It’s enough time to make the scenes feel redundant and too little time to allow us to invest in the characters emotionally. These aren’t merely plastic characters with plastic problemsthey’re cookie-dough characters with cookie-dough problems: Not just overtly fake, they’re mushy and saccharine, too.

I value communication and honesty, so I’m not going to lie to you and say “Everything is fine” with this movie. It’s tedious, unfunny, and depressing, and weakly tries to give a moral lesson about maintaining relationships and communication without even knowing how best to communicate with an audience.