(Miramax) Robert De Niro, Drew Barrymore, Kate Beckinsale, Sam Rockwell, Melissa Leo, Lucian Maisel, Damian Young, James Frain, Katherine Moenning, Brendan Sexton III, James Murtaugh, Austin Lysy. Directed by Kirk Jones
Family dynamics can be a very complicated thing. Often, the relationship between the parents and the children is channeled through the mom. When that’s the case, what happens to that relationship when the mom passes away?
In the case of Frank Goode (De Niro), the relationship deteriorates. Frank was responsible for putting the protective coating on telephone cable, millions of miles of it. He’s retired now, with a nice house and bad lungs from years of inhaling toxic chemicals. He is also mourning the loss of his wife some eight months prior.
Growing up, he always pushed his kids to be achievers and he is proud that they have done just that. Amy (Beckinsale) owns a successful advertising agency and has a great marriage and a son of her own. Rosie (Barrymore) is a dancer in a successful Las Vegas show. Robert (Rockwell) is the conductor of a symphony orchestra. Then there’s David (Lysy), the youngest whom Frank pushed the hardest. David is an artist living in New York City.
He’s invited them all over to the house for the weekend. It is an ambition of his to have all of his children eating a meal at the same table. He goes to the grocery store to pick up the ingredients for a memorable steak dinner; he even buys a new state-of-the-art barbecue grill just for the occasion. Then, one by one, they call and cancel.
Frank decides to visit them all, one by one and see what is going on. His doctor advises against it and forbids him to fly – the pressurized environment could cause problems for his lungs. So, he takes the train and the bus. With him he brings his medication and an envelope for each of his kids. When he gets to New York, to his surprise David isn’t at home. He slips David’s envelope under the door and heads west.
He will find that his ideas about his children has been mistaken and that in fact far from being fine, they have been hiding things from him and in some cases outright lying to him. The secrets of his children at last come out, as does the contents of those mysterious envelopes he has been giving to his adult kids.
This is based on the 1990 Italian movie Stanno Tutti Bene. I haven’t seen that one so I can’t really compare the two, but on its own I can say that director Jones has assembled an impressive cast. What can you say about De Niro that hasn’t already been said? Even when he is at his worst, he is still always an interesting presence. Heck, I’d go see one of the Twilight movies if De Niro was in it.
Rockwell is no De Niro but he is still a superb actor who seems to get better with each role. Here he is much more in a supporting role but he plays Robert note-perfectly. Barrymore is truly America’s sweetheart if Julia Roberts is not (and certainly Barrymore is heir to that throne if she is). Beckinsale, after years of being considered more of a genre star for the Underworld series has proven herself a capable actress in movies like Snow Angel and this one.
There are some unexpected twists to the movie – the contents of the envelopes, for one. One of the problems however, is that the overall structure is a bit cliché – you know the kids aren’t telling him everything. You know that Frank isn’t telling his kids everything. You know there is going to be a great emotional upheaval. You know that everything happens for a reason and that the filmmakers take great pains to make sure that what appears to be throwaway bits of business or characters will turn out to be significant in the end. And quite frankly, the metaphor of the telephone lines for inter-familial communications is shoved down our throats overly much, and doesn’t work quite as well in a cellular phone world. It worked quite well the first couple of times but after that it was more of “Okay we get it we get it!” type of thing. For those who haven’t seen the movie yet, I strongly recommend you don’t read the last paragraph – it may alter your enjoyment of the film.
One of the things that I found to work well for me is that the movie is being promoted as a heart-warming holiday film and it truly is not. The more cathartic moments worked for me because I wasn’t expecting them quite frankly. So in that sense, that’s the great strength of the movie. That and another opportunity to watch one of the greatest film actors in history work his craft.
REASONS TO GO: Hey, it’s De Niro – he’s always interesting, even at his worst. The supporting cast is superb. The storyline goes to some unexpected destinations.
REASONS TO STAY: It gets a bit maudlin in places. While there are some interesting twists and turns, there are also some stretches that are cliché-ridden.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some strong language and some of the subject matter is not for the young ‘uns.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Rockwell played Barrymore’s lover in Charlies Angels and Beckinsale’s ex-husband in Snow Angels.
HOME OR THEATER: This is an intimate film and perfectly good on a small screen.
FINAL RATING: 7/10
TOMORROW: The Hangover