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Oh, the guilt: Everybody’s Fine lays it on thick

by Glen Baity

Oh, the guilt: Everybody’s Fine lays it on thickForget all thathooey aboutdecking the hallsand roastingchestnuts onopen fires. Whatthe holidaysare really aboutis the exerciseof passiveaggressiontoward yourloved ones.You could be forgiven for thinkingso after watching Everybody’s Fine.Or, as I have come to know it, TheSad Old Man and His Four HorribleChildren. It’s not exactly a holidaymovie, though the marketing portraysit as a kind of Four Christmases inreverse. It does end at Christmas,capping the longest guilt trip you’llever take at the movies. If you likeyour holidays slathered in pathos, stepright up.Robert De Niro plays Frank, theSad Old Man. Frank’s wife died afew months back, and as the weatherturns cooler, he’s really, really lookingforward to seeing his adult kids, all ofwhom are supposed to come back tothe family home for a nice long visit.He buys a new grill for the occasion.And some fancy wine. Gotta impressthose Big City kids, you know.And then the phone calls start.Amy (Kate Beckinsale) can’t makeit — she’s a high-powered ad execwith a lot of work to do. Robert (SamRockwell) can’t make it — he’s asymphony conductor, and he has abig concert coming up. Rosie (DrewBarrymore) can’t make it — she’s adancer in Vegas, and she just can’t getaway this weekend. David can’t makeit — he’s… well, nobody is sayingwhy David can’t make it, but when hecan’t get a hold of him, Frank startsto worry.Against his doctor’s advice — didI tell you? Frank has a lung disease,which he got on the job, which heworked at for 30 years because he wasraising four ingrates he was foolishSad Old Man decidesto hit the road topay surprise visitsto each kid. In theprocess, he learnsthat everybody’snot fine. No, notat all. Amy’smarriage is introuble! Robert— gasp! — isn’ta conductor atall, but a lowlypercussionist!Rosie doesn’town a swankyapartment —she’s onlyhouse-sittingfor a friend!Theseshockingrevelationsand morecome tolight as thechildren slowly — very, very slowly— find ways to tell to their father thatthey don’t mean to push him away. It’sjust that his expectations have alwaysbeen so high, and he was never as easyto talk to as mom.This is what passes for conflict inthis dull melodrama. It could all beresolved in about 15 minutes if anyof these people would quit pussyfootingaround and speak honestly toone another. But this is the point thefilm beats you over the head with: It’ssometimes difficult to do just that.Well, fine. But there are betterways to say it. Instead of finding aninnovative direction to take his story,writer-director Kirk Jones grabsa bloody handful of heartstringsand plucks away as hard as he can.After we watch Frank make excitedpreparations for a visit we just knowis not going to happen, the audienceis treated to a litany of Sad Old Mancliches. Here’s Frank, eating a sadlittle meal all by himself in his big,empty house. Here he is clumsilystriking up aconversation with an indulgentstranger. Here he is gazing at picturesof his children in happier times,before they went off to the Big Cityand abandoned him. Once the action(such as it is) heats up, Jones stillplugs in one of these little vignettesevery five minutes orso, lest you forget howvery sad and lonelyFrank is. Everybody’sFine might be the mostnakedly manipulativemovie of 2009.To De Niro’s credit,he tries to bring somedignity to this role,but it creates somedissonance whenhe’s never quite asdoddering and pitifulas the script indicateshe should be. He’snot alone — the thematerial is beneathpretty much everyonehere, even the seldom-brilliantKate Beckinsale. Jones has a valid,if trite, point to make: Sometimesit can be hard to communicate withthe ones you love the most. Anditis sad that children eventuallygrow up, and that their parentscannot protect them from the worldanymore. But the film wallows insadness, and its manufactured conflictand greeting-card ending serve themessage poorly, makingEverybody’sFinelittle more than a sappy, pointlessodyssey for the holidays.

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