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Is everybody fine?

Movies | Two-dimensional focus limits a good film about an aging father

Issue: "Homegrown terror," Dec. 5, 2009

Everybody's Fine is rated PG-13 for thematic elements and one scene's bad language, but it should be FG-50, indicating its fitness particularly for fathers over 50. Others may also like it, but I confess that it jerked the tears from me, up to its contrived, mistaken Hollywood happy ending.

The film tells the story of Frank Goode (Robert De Niro), who has spent his adult life working in a wire factory to support his wife and four children. Now she is dead and they are adults who were used to communicating with him through her, so he sets out on a cross-country train and bus trip to visit each one. Ready to luxuriate in their happiness, he eventually learns that each is troubled.

Director Kirk Jones includes some brilliant touches. When Frank sees his grown children moving toward him, he momentarily visualizes them when they were small: Fathers over 50 know how that goes. Jones connects scenes by shots of the telephone wires that Frank spent his working life helping to manufacture: Ironically, he has helped multitudes to communicate but finds it hard to talk with his own family.

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Everybody's Fine describes well the surface of each character, with every home telling a story: Frank's is neat, one son's is empty, one daughter's is spectacular but coldly alienating, another's is someone else's borrowed to make a false impression. Hollywood movies involving non-communicating children and fathers often tell the story from a prodigal son's point of view, with dad as idiot-but this one respectfully tells it from the father's.

The film has two downsides, one subtle and one clear: its sappy happy ending. Not wanting to be a spoiler, I'll just say that the children are no longer protecting their father and he is no longer asking anything of them. They sit around the table, secrets revealed, and even Frank frankly says that his wife always overcooked the Thanksgiving turkey. Moral of story: As long as you're honest and respect diversity, everything is fine. Give me a break.

At a post-screening press opportunity I asked director Jones if the ending was part of his original vision. His unsurprising answer was no: Trial audiences left uneasy, and "I didn't want to make a movie that depressed people." He did come up with one moving solution (it involves a painting with telephone poles) but the overall conclusion left me wondering: Could the film end, without depressing the audience, in some other way?

Yes-and the other way points to the film's subtle downside but life's subtle upside. Everybody's Fine defines problems as horizontal-relationships among people-so all the potential solutions are horizontal. The movie's two-dimensional world has no room for a third, vertical dimension, and without that third dimension defeat is inevitable. In a two-dimensional world, the only alternatives are despair or sappiness.

But think of It's a Wonderful Life (1946): Beneath its whimsicality sits the profound lesson that God can give us a new perspective on our lives. A quiet, small film, Tender Mercies (1983), makes the same point by moving an alcoholic singer (Robert Duvall) to an understanding that allows him to survive the death of his daughter.

Frank in Everybody's Fine is a quasi-Christ figure, journeying to help his children and nearly laying down his life for them. Near the end he has a physical crisis; a Christian filmmaker would give him a spiritual crisis. Christian parents can hope on some deep level to have things to talk about with their grown children-but only if all learn that we're fellow pilgrims on a journey we share.

Even without that Christian edge, Everybody's Fine is a useful stage-of-life movie. I have my list of great films, but three movies that fall short have gotten to me emotionally at decade-long intervals: Field of Dreams (1989) for sons thinking about fathers, The Family Man (2000) for careerists thinking about home, and Everybody's Fine for fathers thinking about children.

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.


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