In his career-debasement race against Al Pacino, must Robert De Niro inflict a moribund genre botch like Everybody’s Fine on the public just in time to grinch us up for Christmas? Here he’s minimally applied his once-revered talents to the solitary widower’s road-trip-of-discovery drama, and the end product isn’t even a threat to the slapstick misanthropy of About Schmidt, let alone Paul Mazursky’s humane Harry and Tonto of a generation past.
Eight months after the passing of the wife who protected him from the personal and professional travails of his grown children, De Niro’s Frank Goode leaves his Long Island home, after one too many cancelled group visits, to surprise his offspring: a Chicago ad exec (Kate Beckinsale), a touring symphony percussionist (Sam Rockwell), a Vegas dancer (Drew Barrymore), and a Manhattan artist whose mysterious disappearance telegraphs some shameless climactic tearjerking. De Niro’s still-sound physical instincts—heavy walk, routinely mumbled deceptions to his physician—make the exposition watchable, but he’s been saddled with a character so Everygramps that he scarcely seems more functional than the catatonic patient he played in Awakenings: “Oh, it has a handle,” he quietly marvels when someone yanks one up from his traveling wheelie bag.
The film’s superficially handsome, high-definition widescreen frame is the equivalent of a Godiva box holding stale chocolates; its banal dialogue and vintage TV-movie creakiness waste the supporting cast, from a stranded Rockwell to Melissa Leo, rewarded with a two-minute bit as a cheerful trucker. In remaking a 1990 Italian original, writer-director Kirk Jones annoys with recurring POV shots of Frank seeing his middle-aged heirs as juveniles, then hits bottom with a delirium sequence where the patriarch has it out with the preadolescents over the failures of their adult selves. Frank is a walking guilt trip to his kids: Afflicted with fibrosis after a sacrificial career of coating wiring with polyvinyl chloride, his trip is conspired against via the family’s transcontinental phone calls (shots of telecom towers and poles as the Goodes plot is typical Jones overkill).
The filmmakers have earned more lasting guilt by failing to transform this treacle with signifiers of flesh and blood. Finally putting Frank at a graveside to confess what he’s learned to the departed, they merely prove no narrative tactic is beneath them.