Reviews

Everybody's Fine

Frank’s essential irony -- his inability to communicate on top of his presumption that he communicates well -- is italicized repeatedly in Everybody’s Fine.


Everybody's Fine

Director: Kirk Jones
Cast: Robert De Niro, Drew Barrymore, Kate Beckinsale, Sam Rockwell
Rated: PG-13
Studio: Miramax Films
Year: 2009
US date: 2009-12-04 (General release)
UK date: 2010-02-19 (General release)
Website
Trailer
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.

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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