Tuesday, March 16, 2010

De Niro in Everybody's Fine

 The primary reason that I wanted to mention the film Everybody's Fine on this, my blog dedicated to the art and culture of film viewing, film-making and film-digesting, is because Robert De Niro is a beast of an actor - a true artist, through and through. As De Niro continues to mature in both his craft and his body, his work has morphed into a marinated, reflective, even pensively honest and age appropriate collage of surprising roles.
When I think De Niro, I think Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, The Godfather, Deer Hunter and his slickly terrifying portrayal of Al Capone in The Untouchables. What a kick-ass, but most certainly type-cast, repertoire of filmic baddies, thanks in large to one of America's most prolific auteurs, Martin Scorsese. But, when it comes to hard, urban, and skuzzy masculinity, De Niro is the king - or so it is that many would agree. Heavy is the head that wears the crown, yes, and time waits for no man (how many clich├ęs can I work into one sentence?). I had to wonder after cringing through Meet the Parents and the sequel Meet the Fockers (soon to be outdone by the third Focker film now in post-production), when De Niro had ever so sneakily crossed over into the grandfather role. With humility and respect, De Niro has indulged a light-hearted sensibility in recent years, case in the point: The Fockers. De Niro did participate in Righteous Kill in 2008, a serious film about veteran NYC detectives tracking a killer along side a younger team, a role conducive to a hyper-masculinated performance, but tempered with the inevitable acknowledgement of the actors aging.
Everybody's Fine is a neat little dysfunctional family narrative intertwined with grieving and familiar transitions. De Niro plays Frank Goode, a retired father of 4 and recent widower who spent a lifetime coating telephone cable with PVC and is now suffering from the ill effects of prolonged exposure in his lungs. All he wants is to have his children around the dinner table once more, just like when their mother was alive, but when they all call at the last minute to cancel; Frank grabs his suitcase, defying doctor’s orders, and sets out to meet with each of them, from New York City to Las Vegas. As he journeys from son to daughter to son to daughter, the truth of the family disorder becomes relatibly apparent: no one knows how to talk to Dad now that Mom is gone. Did Dad push too hard for greatness instead of accepting his children as they are? Was Dad too involved in the denial of conflict to see the human toil rising within his family nest? With precision subtlety filmmaker Kirk Jones begins to reveal the real culprit: communication. Like so many American families growing up in the Television age, this family never learned how to communicate effectively, and rather than deal with it, fell into the seductive allure of "everything’s fine, no problems here, and everybody’s fine". A strong motif illustrating this divide is the telephone wire itself, appearing again and again in various forms throughout the film, ending in an immensely powerful representation of the family bond. Franks job was to make communication possible for millions of strangers and yet in his own home a storm of insecurities was brewing. When Frank follows the telephone wires across the county in a bid to reunite his family, he in turn reopens an opportunity to enquire into the realities of his children’s lives.
The overall tone of the film is subdued: muted playfulness, muted sorrow, muted joy and a stinging sense of overall melancholy. Kirk Jones, writer and director, used long shots down sparse hallways, tight framing on travel scenes, and the sound of conversations over telephone wires to aide in this tonality of loneliness and redemption.
De Niro's performance is heartfelt, tragic, delicate and, above all, honest. His character knows he is being kept in the dark by his children, he knows his body is failing, and he knows this might be his last chance to resurrect, or reenact, the perfect blissful memories of family time together. A brave role for any actor, and certainly a nod to De Niro's versatility, sensitivity and willingness to embrace his career at a pivotal moment, is in order. Bravo.