A Simple Man
Oh my god, it’s my dad. Robert DeNiro is playing my dad in Everybody’s Fine.
Okay, not really. After I got past the initial shock of seeing my dad coming through Robert DeNiro’s — Robert DeNiro’s! — face and body and mannerisms (and after I got past the shock of thinking, Oh dear, when did Robert DeNiro turn into an Old Man?), I started seeing all the things that weren’t like my dad: that’s different, and that’s different, and goodness, my dad would never have done that. But even after the specifics of the DeNiro-dad’s family veered wildly from anything my family has ever known or said or done, I never could shake the feeling that I was watching, up on the screen, a reality I knew intimately well.
Maybe you’ll sorta see your dad here, too. Maybe DeNiro here is sorta everybody’s dad. Because writer-director Kirk Jones — working loosely from a script for the 1990 Italian film Stanno tutti bene — has pulled off a little miracle with this lovely, lovely movie: He’s telling us a story both universal enough in its reach to speak to anyone who’s ever been part of a family, and specific enough in its particulars to keep it grounded in the fantasy of fiction.
And, oh, those particulars! From the neat but 70s-ugly furniture DeNiro’s recent widower Frank vacuums around to the minutiae of his preparations for a weekend visit from his adult children for a family barbecue, there is cinematic magic in how Jones doles out the structure of this man’s life. Even something as seemingly throwaway as how Frank works in the yard under the light of a motion-detecting security lamp to assemble a fancy new grill — and has to wave at the light every few minutes when it shuts itself off — is deployed with delicate grace. Then, when the kids all cancel on him and Frank sets off on a crosscountry road trip to visit them all individually, Jones (Nanny McPhee, Waking Ned Devine) — and DeNiro (Righteous Kill, Stardust); this is one of his great performances — let Frank blossom before us. What looked like a sad, lonely retiree at first becomes a man far more intriguing: still a simple man, but one who takes great pleasure in sharing even with total strangers the fruits of his life of hard work. He’s proud to point out that all those telephone wires flashing by outside a train, for instance, do their job because of the insulating coating that was his life’s work, and delighted to share news of his kids with anyone who’ll listen: “a million feet of wire” got his kids where they are today, he likes to say.
It’s a tiny, telling detail, that we know this about Frank — that Frank knows this about Frank — but that he, as it transpires, knows so little about the lives of his children (Kate Beckinsale [Whiteout, Nothing But the Truth], Sam Rockwell [G-Force, Frost/Nixon], and Drew Barrymore [Whip It, Lucky You]). As he travels by train and bus, showing up unexpectedly on doorstops all over the country, nothing is quite as he believed it was… as his wife had told him it was. It’s not that the kids don’t love Dad: it’s that, perhaps, they love him too much, and have sought to protect him from the hard truths of their lives.
The drama in how the lives of the kids are not fine is all deceptively low-key — this is no screeching, sappy melodrama but a powerfully affecting story, and emotions will run very high by the end. What’s most satisfying, perhaps, about Fine is how sharp and perceptive Jones is in his exploration of family as the secrets we keep because we think lies are kinder than the truth. It manifests itself mostly through the subplot about David, a fourth sibling. David was Frank’s first stop on his road trip: Frank knocks on his apartment door in New York City, gets no answer, and leaves the next day, never having seen his son. David essentially does not appear in the film at all, but he is, in some ways, the most vivid character (among a roster of characters who are nevertheless very vivid themselves indeed). The other three siblings conspire over Frank’s insulated phone lines about what to tell Dad about David, and what not to tell… which wraps up some of the most stirring moments of the movie in all the things that everyone is not saying about a person who’s not there.
If family is about how we fill the spaces between those we love most, then that is one of the most haunting metaphors for family I’ve come across yet.