Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

De Niro Anchors Film On Family

By JANE WILSON, Special To The Bulletin | Published December 10, 2009

Director Kirk Jones gives us “Everybody’s Fine,” a film about a father who is isolated and out of touch with his children, and who makes up his mind to rectify this.

Frank Goode is a retired widower who seems to be just marking time, keeping his house immaculate and maintaining his yard and his health. He lives alone, as his four children are grown and independent and his wife has died just a few months before. As the movie opens, Frank is preparing for a visit from the kids, but he is disappointed as, one by one, they phone him with excuses of why they must cancel their trips.

Frank clearly loves his children but is distant from them. His wife was the glue that held the family together, and she was the one with whom the children felt most comfortable. Now that she is gone, he decides that he must take the initiative to re-connect with his family. Against the advice of his doctor, Frank sets out on a cross-country trip to visit each child. He cannot fly, so he uses trains and buses to reach David, an artist; Amy, an advertising executive; Robert, a musician; and Rosie, a dancer.

Each of his visits is markedly uncomfortable. The children are ill at ease with their father, and they make excuses about why they cannot spend more time with him. Most importantly, they all have secrets that they want to keep from their father—for his own good, they believe, to keep him from worrying. Frank, however, is more perceptive than they give him credit for, and as he is shuffled between them, he pieces together the details of their troubled lives and becomes more determined to help them. He instinctively believes that if he can just bring his family together again, their problems will be, if not solved, at least alleviated. As it turns out, he is right.

Robert De Niro, as Frank Goode, is at the center of this affecting family drama. His performance anchors the film. His low-key, almost muted, performance gives weight to events that could otherwise have become overly sentimental and melodramatic. De Niro plays Frank with a clear understanding of the character. He is a little unsophisticated but never ridiculous. The film and De Niro’s performance make it clear that Frank has never wanted anything but the best for his children, and, if he has been overbearing about this in the past, he clearly wants to improve his relationships in the present. As Frank tells his daughter Rosie, the only thing he’s ever wanted to be is a good father.

One of the most intriguing elements about “Everybody’s Fine” is how Frank’s relationships with his children change, very subtly. Without the buffer his wife provided, and in an effort to become closer to them, Frank must no longer be the autocratic parent. Instead, he must approach them as adults and learn to accept them as they are, including their faults and their disappointments. For their part, his children must make the same adjustment. They must grow up in their father’s eyes and open themselves up to him. When they all take this step, they find an understanding and a family closeness that had previously been missing.

The film uses a metaphor of phone lines to underline the communication—and lack thereof—between the family members. Frank made his living covering phone lines with plastic coating, and working with this substance for so many years has endangered his health. In one way, the lines he points to proudly, swooping outside a train window, represent how he has sacrificed for his family. He worked hard at difficult manual labor to provide for his children and give them the opportunity to excel in more artistic endeavors. The key is that he never sees it as a sacrifice; for him it is the natural order of things. His children seem more burdened by the idea of sacrifice than he is.

In another way, the phone lines represent the tangible communication between the family members. The children are in contact with each other, discussing their father’s visit and the problems they must hide from him. Obviously they care deeply for each other and for their father, but they do not have an easy way of showing that concern. In an age of cell towers and wireless communication, the phone lines have seemingly become useless, like the surface-level communication they have between them. A final, touching image demonstrates their importance, and reinforces the value of true communication.

As Frank travels to re-connect with his children, each visit includes a few moments of real connection in the midst of the awkwardness. De Niro is paired with three young actors who are able to hold their own. As Amy, the sophisticated executive, Kate Beckinsale must walk the tightrope of being a little embarrassed by her over-enthusiastic father and being happy and proud to see him. Sam Rockwell plays Robert as a hang-dog, not-quite-ambitious son who feels that he has never been quite good enough for his father. He stands up for himself, but without belligerence, and manages to convey his disappointment in his relationship with his father. As Rosie, the most outgoing of the children, Drew Barrymore is the most enthusiastic and at ease with her father, but also the most deceptive. She, like the others, is guilty of telling her father that everything is fine, when, obviously, it is not.

Although not overtly spiritual, the film displays a distinct belief in the afterlife, and the end of the story is uplifting. By breaking down barriers and learning to communicate honestly, this family is able to come together, possibly for the first time, hopefully not for the last. The message is clear—accepting each other is important, but just as important is presenting yourself truthfully as what and who you are. For this family, being open and honest leads to a true emotional connection.

Jane Wilson, a local writer and movie enthusiast, holds a doctorate in English from the University of Georgia. She is a parishioner at St. Pius X Church, Conyers.