everybodys_fine_ver2Despite the title of the new Robert DeNiro family dramedy, “Everybody’s Fine,” everybody is most certainly not fine. In fact, the kids in the Goode family have a variety of problems—some big, some small. The only thing that binds them is a desire not to worry their father with the details of their family woes.

DeNiro plays Frank Goode, a recent widower planning a family reunion—complete with “fancy wine and filet mignons” cooked on an expensive new BBQ—with his four adult kids. His plans are scuttled when, one by one, his kids cancel. It’s like a Harry Chapin song come to life. His late wife had kept the family in touch, but with her gone he’s missing the connection to his kids so he decides, instead of “spending more time in the garden” as his doctor suggests, to make a cross country trip to see his kids in person.

“Everybody’s Fine” is De Niro’s “About Schmidt.” He’s the man who spent his life trying to give his kids the best life he could but despite his best intentions (and high expectations) they turned out to be less than perfect. In other words, they’re human. This is a movie about expectations and the pressure of having to live up to them.

The road trip format offers up lots of opportunities to introduce new characters and give each of the kids their own unique space and situation. Director and screenwriter Kirk Jones makes full use of the medium, introducing Frank to people along the way—random people on a train, a dangerous homeless man in a bus station, Melissa Leo as a plain talking truck driver—and for the most part the movie makes the most of these opportunities. A visual metaphor involving telephone wires—Frank was a factory worker who coated “a million feet of wire” with PVC coating to get his kids “where they are today”—gets a little old and at one point storm clouds literally come rolling in when the going gets tough, but its heart is in the right place.

Unfortunately too much heart puts a damper on the ending of the story, wrapping things up in the kind of tidy bow that never exists in real life. It’s too bad Jones takes the easy path to wrapping the story up because up until the feel good ending (which follows a not-so-feel-good climax) the movie has been true to the emotional journey that many families take. Jones does a good job at showing the kind of little tensions that arise when families get together while exposing the white lies that people tell to spare the feelings of those close to them. It’s good work that is blunted by a corn-ball ending, but good work nonetheless.

At the heart of it all is De Niro. I don’t know how many people I’ve seen get shot, punched, stabbed or generally abused by him over the years—it’s a considerable number when you think back to all the bad guys he’s played—so it is amazing how quickly the image of Bad Bobby is replaced by Frank, a caring, if somewhat bumbling father. De Niro makes Frank an everyman, a totally relatable character that keeps the movie interesting even when it takes a turn for cheesy sentiment.

“Everybody’s Fine” isn’t as good a film as “About Schmidt” but it does get much right about the family dynamic.