Zhang Meng’s Everybody’s Fine is somehow even duller than the American remake of Giuseppe Tornatore’s original Italian film. Though Tornatore staged his narrative with a wryness that’s lost on both the American and Chinese incarnations, the American film at least had Robert De Niro, who was so viscerally uncomfortable selling the story’s reconciliatory clichés as to provide it with a modicum of inadvertent tension. There’s little to distinguish Zhang’s production, which spends its leisurely running time relating the earth-shattering message that children grow up to be adults with lives more complicated than their parents might ever discern.
All three versions of the story concern an aging father who comes to realize that he barely knows his adult children, who paint rosy pictures of their lives for him so as to condescendingly prevent him from “worrying.” The protagonist in this case is Guan Zhiguo (Zhang Guoli), a lonely retired geologist who spends much of his time milling about in his quaint home or expansive courtyard, anticipating a visit from his four children, who’ve spread out all over China, for an annual family dinner. The children bail on the dinner this year, and so Zhiguo embarks on a cross-country tour of their new lives, visiting them whether or not they care to be visited.
As in the 2009 film, the children are defined entirely by their glamorous jobs or lack thereof, which is amusingly ironic considering this remake’s theme involves the usual platitudes about home being where the heart is. Otherwise, the children’s lives are interchangeably disappointing so as to offer convenient fodder for Zhiguo’s regret as a rehabilitated absentee parent, which is never interrogated for its inherent self-absorption. Instead, the filmmaker and his lead fetishize Zhiguo’s decency, embalming him in resigned smiles and anonymously burrowed gestures. Fleeting acquaintances routinely refer to Zhiguo as “uncle” and “old fellow,” and the protagonist always acquiesces to them with stiffly self-congratulatory self-pity. This is a jellyfish of a man who’s deeply in love with the idea of being old and irrelevant.
The poignancy of Zhiguo’s coming-of-age situation is unvaryingly emphasized in all caps, quickly fostering a bored and contrarian resentment within the audience that parallels that of the children. There are some gorgeous tableaus of urban China, but their beauty is impersonally, unspontaneously pictorial and detached from the characters’ emotions. The director can’t allow us to discover even a revealing snow globe for ourselves, as he must foreground it in an unambiguous close-up, hammering home the subtext as preordained text. There’s nothing at stake in this preachy, forgettable bauble, which joins its American cousin in the scrapheap of family dramedies that no one watches, unless by default out of boredom on TBS or TNT.