The mystique of Marlon Brando always brought out the best in Robert De Niro, whose finest work seemed to spring from a kind of conversation and competition between the two actors. De Niro played the younger version of Vito Corleone in The Godfather Part II and used Brando's trademark "I coulda been a contender" speech to convey the redemption of boxer Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull. De Niro stakes a persuasive claim to be the Brando of his generation.
The two performers' late careers don't look much alike. Where Brando engaged in odd behavior and occasionally took nutso roles such as Dr. Moreau in The Island of Dr. Moreau, De Niro seldom strays from the middle of the road. He maintains an admirable work ethic, putting in his time at the office, while seldom challenging himself as an artist. He doesn't embarrass himself in Everybody's Fine, but his performance as retiree Frank Goode is the kind of role he can do in his sleep – and practically has to do in the audience's sleep.
Director Kirk Jones' remake of the 1990 Marcello Mastroianni vehicle of the same name casts De Niro as a widower preparing for the annual visit of his four grown children. Despite his lonely efforts to clean house, buy meat and build a new grill, the kids all find excuses not to come, effectively abandoning him. Frank decides to pay them each unannounced visits, and since his doctor advises him against air travel, he crosses the country via trains and buses. (Why can't he act like a normal retiree and float his house across the continent with hundreds of balloons?)
The kids never liked Frank as much as their mother, but they're not ducking him (just) out of malice. Sensitive son David, a New York artist, suffers some kind of legal crisis in Mexico, so the rest of the kids keep Frank in the dark to spare his feelings until it's sorted out. Their deception proves fairly consistent in a family where no one tells each other difficult truths. For instance, Frank discovers his musician son Robert (Sam Rockwell) isn't a fancy symphony conductor, but a back-row percussionist. Rosie (Drew Barrymore), a dancer in Las Vegas, and Amy (Kate Beckinsale), a Chicago ad exec and mother, prove similarly evasive about their real lives. Frank hasn't been candid about his health problems with his children, either.
The tone of Everybody's Fine manages to be at once bland and heavy handed. The art direction hints at the emptiness of Amy's life by giving her a home and an office of equally colorless sterility, as if she lives and works in the High Museum's atrium. After Frank misses opportunities to renew ties with his kids, he sees youthful versions of them played by child actors. Unsubtle as this device is, it sets up the film's strangest, most intriguing scene when Frank dreams of confronting his children's younger selves at a cloud-covered picnic.
De Niro's performance doesn't exactly reconcile Frank's contradictions as a remote, demanding dad who nevertheless eagerly chats up his fellow travelers about his old job coating power lines with insulation. Even though the film depicts family members who tell white lies and talk past each other, De Niro seldom connects with his screenmates. One suspects he'd deliver his lines the same way if he were talking to the walls. Lucian Maisel as Amy's son Jack seems to get De Niro's attention best with a combination of teenage disrespect and familial affection.
Everybody's Fine includes a few amusing moments, including a scene with Amy's simpering colleagues at her ad agency. Primarily, however, Waking Ned Devine director Jones waffles between playing the material as light humor or serious drama, so Everybody's Fine occupies the mushy middle. In general, De Niro appears more lively and engaged during the silly comedies of his late career such as Meet the Parents or Analyze This. It's hard to imagine De Niro's contemporary work inspiring many actors of the next generation.