Unless the competition heats up, Robert DeNiro may have an Oscar coming for his performance in Everybody's Fine. His turn as a retired widower trying to connect with his adult children may not rank high in the actor's legacy, but the Academy hasn't handed him a trophy in almost 30 years, and it'd be just like them to praise what's arguably his most ostentatiously lovable performance to date. Call it the Scent Of A Woman effect.
DeNiro plays Frank Goode, who sets off on a cross-country road trip after his kids skip a barbecue weekend. Unlike the hardass dads of This Boy's Life and Meet The Parents, Goode is an amiable gabber seeking serenity -- when his Brooklyn-dwelling son doesn't answer his doorbell, DeNiro sits and chats with a passing hooker before nodding off on the stoop. Despite the passive-aggressive nature of his unannounced visits, the children return his good humor. Soon we learn they've felt pressured to exaggerate their successes and avoid troubling him -- Mother actually listened while Father dreamed big and worked double shifts to pay for school. But even as they hide divorce, childbirth, and even death behind his back, their issues never truly blossom into resentment. Played sympathetically by Kate Beckinsale, Drew Barrymore, and Sam Rockwell, they're just more aware than most of the cluelessness behind his Buddha act.
Between the extreme familial mistrust and director Kirk Jones' crisp, passive wide shots, Everybody's Fine would feel like a Michael Haneke film if soothing acoustic guitars and string sections weren't giving us aural back rubs and serving us cocoa throughout (only a mugger played by Brandon Sexton III from Boys Don't Cry interrupts the calm). Jones doesn't even let the family have a true confrontation -- DeNiro realizes his failures as parent in an astonishingly straightforward dream sequence, with his children (speaking as adults but played by tots) confirming his deepest suspicions at a picnic table. When he wakes, there's nothing left to do but cry a little, hug, and say the film's title in voice-over.
Although his Billy Crystal and Ben Stiller comedies have provided some segue from the Scorcese era, it's still disconcerting to see Robert DeNiro play such a cuddlebug; even at his angriest, he's no more threatening than Jack Lemmon. But comparing him to the late king of the nudniks underlines how much DeNiro's gravity keeps the cutesy at bay. Just as he refused to admit Jake LaMotta was a roach, he doesn't admit Frank Goode is just a panda, and the respect he earns from his co-stars allows us to accept their characters not telling Dad to fuck off. After stumbling through noise like Righteous Kill and Stardust, that alone may earn DeNiro his accolades.