He goes to, she goes fro.
He goes fast, she goes slow.
He goes left ‘n’ she goes right.
—Perry Como, “Papa Loves Mambo”
Frank (Robert De Niro) is feeling lost and lonely. You know this because he spends the first few minutes of Everybody’s Fine poking around his upstate New York home—pumping up the backyard wading pool, mowing the lawn, vacuuming, wandering through supermarket aisles. Ostensibly, he’s getting the place ready for a visit from his kids. But really, you see, he’s missing his dead wife.
The kids miss her too, because, as the film eventually reveals, she was the one they “could talk to.” Dad, well, he was always a bit of a tyrant, unself-consciously expecting his children would make him proud. Now they’re torn, both resenting his impositions and trying to hide exactly how they’ve fallen short of his dreams, pretending to be fine” even when they’re not. The film manages this tension clumsily: not only does Frank remain resistant to communicating openly, but he also talks—a lot—about his professional contribution to the wondrous world of communication, namely, by coating the wires used for telephones.
Frank’s essential irony—his inability to communicate on top of his presumption that he communicates well—is italicized repeatedly in Everybody’s Fine. For one thing, his children keep in constant contact with one another by phone, a point made by an exceedingly corny effect: their voices sound over shots of phone wires (even though they’re using cell phones, and so satellites and towers, not wires). For another thing, he decides to visit them all, one by one, by surprise and without using the phone, such that his mere appearance at a doorstep seems odious.
The visits also make for an episodic, repetitive structure, borrowed from the 1990 film this one remakes, Giuseppe Tornatore’s Stanno Tutti Bene. The “Americanized” version is as egregiously sentimental as the original, without the buffer of European backdrops. Each of Frank’s visits is cut short by the visitee, who makes up a story to get him to move on to the next. So, his arrival at Amy’s (Kate Beckinsale) home in Chicago leads immediately to her calling Rosie (Drew Barrymore), a dancer in Vegas, and Denver-based musician Robert (Sam Rockwell), both warning them and plotting how to sustain/manage dad’s ignorance.
Frank’s own travails are exacerbated by a couple of plot-devicey factors. First, he has a condition (brought on by his work with the wires) that entails taking prescription medication each day. His doctor specifically instructs him not to travel, so his decision to do so anyway is yet another sign of his stubborn refusal to listen. Second, Frank refuses to fly, which means he spends long hours on the ground, traveling by train, bus, and at one point, a hitched ride with a trucker, Colleen (Melissa Leo), whose bromides about the value of ignorance (“People like things easy, that’s what they’re used to. Nobody likes to get hurt”) make you miss the balmy brilliance of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure‘s Large Marge (Alice Nunn).
Being a font of clichés himself, Frank can only nod at Colleen’s sage advice. By the time he meets her, he’s already seen that Amy’s happy family front is a sham (her husband and preteen son fight openly, and she’s nothing if not distracted). What Frank doesn’t see is that all his kids are blaming him for their collective, if vaguely diverse, unhappiness, especially that of youngest son David (played Austin Lysy as an adult, Chandler Frantz as frequently flashbacked youngster), a sensitive artist whom Frank apparently pressured unbearably, now gone missing “in Mexico” (so exotic, so scary, so tedious).
Frank’s interruptions of his children’s routines make them admit that what they’ve been telling him for years isn’t quite right. Robert’s not exactly an orchestra conductor, and Rosie’s life isn’t quite what she’s represented (and it’s hardly a surprise that their misrepresentations are gendered, his about career and hers about romance). But the movie can’t even let this story of complicated relationships tell itself, a decision that is especially tragic in the case of Rockwell’s performance, a little oasis of understatement amid the melodrama.
Instead, Frank’s enlightenment comes in whopping Big Moments—including a gathering of the children, hallucinated in their elementary-school-age innocence, at a picnic table, in the rain. By the time the camera is craning up over the backyard, to emphasize that Frank is feeling oh so lonely, you’re wishing everyone would just back off. Whether they’re fine or not is immaterial.