Near the end of the year, Oscar-consideration movies stack up at the theaters like airplanes over a snowed-in airport. If the major studios ever come to their senses and start releasing Oscar-worthy films year-round, not only will we benefit as audiences, but we also won't have the traditional post-Thanksgiving rush and crush of intended contenders that does more harm than good to the films tumbled out of Hollywood in a six-week span like so much industrial product. Everybody's Fine, starring Robert De Niro, is a prime example of an Oscar-shove season film that, any other time of year, would probably be much better received as a welcome movie for grown-ups to enjoy in the theater; now, it's so strenuously bound to the idea it might earn De Niro an Oscar, it's only going to be seen in that harsh glaring glow.
And that's a shame, because while Everybody's Fine isn't perfect — it leans a little too hard on moments that could use more finesses than brute force, and it goes for the obviously sentimental in places where it could have been smarter and subtler — it does feature the best work we've seen from De Niro in years, and it has more than a little — if not, in fact, occasionally too much — heart. De Niro plays Frank Goode, a retired blue-collar dad still reeling from the death of his wife eight months ago, who's invited his four kids back home to Elmira. But one call to cancel turns into several, and Frank's abandoned. So he decides that if his kids won't come to him, he'll come to them. …
And so Frank heads out coast-to-coast, starting in New York to see his son David (Austin Lysy), who never even shows up at his apartment; next, it's Chicago for Amy (Kate Beckinsale), whose perfect-looking home only looks perfect. Then it's the Pacific Northwest, where Robert (Sam Rockwell) is a musician but not, as he's told his dad, a conductor; then Frank goes to Las Vegas, where Rosie (Drew Barrymore) is living her, and Frank's dream of dancing professionally, even with a few unexpected steps in her choreography.
Beckinsale, Rockwell and Barrymore each get scenes with De Niro — each of Frank's children are not only each hiding something from him, but they're all hiding one specific thing from him — and some fare better than others. Beckinsale's scenes are stolen out from her by Lucian Maisel, playing her son Jack; Barrymore's best scene comes when she's watching De Niro walk away from her at the airport, and we get to watch her face play out a series of emotions. But Rockwell — who, let it be said, is quietly turning into one of America's most interesting actors — comes at De Niro and gives as good as he gets in an unexpected, and unexpectedly powerful, scene where Frank and Robert talk about the past and the present and loving-but-complicated relationship.
But this is De Niro's show, and it's one we're glad to watch. For too long — for over a decade, in fact — De Niro's been working either in unfunny comedies or big, slow action-thrillers; you can argue he's good in The Good Shepherd (2006), but before that you have to go back to 1998's Ronin to find a De Niro performance that didn't make me cringe in some way. It is a pleasure to see De Niro play a person — not a thriller cop or killer with a gun in one hand and a paycheck in the other, or another dreadfully unfunny "comedy" character he sleepwalks through performing. De Niro acts here, and if the script isn't quite worthy of his efforts, his efforts are always worthy of your attention.
Writer-director Kirk Jones (adapting the Italian film Stanno Tutti Bene) occasionally goes a little overboard in Everybody's Fine, and it's not to the film's benefit; I can't elaborate for fear of spoiling the film, but for every scene that Jones overplays, there are two where De Niro underplays; you keep watching him, even when you don't feel like watching the movie. Everybody's Fine would be just fine, if not for De Niro; watching him work here, though, you come to appreciate it as a real, rare chance to watch an icon of American acting actually act.