Robert De Niro slouches convincingly into the role of "God's lonely man," as self-described by the explosive Travis Bickle in "Taxi Driver" and evidenced by the retired widower and father in this remake of Giuseppe Tornatore's "Stanno tutti bene" (1990). De Niro's understated performance and the subject matter of the family drama strike a chord -- sometimes humorous, often melancholy and ultimately truthful. The honesty at the film's core trumps the heavy-handed moments hammered home by writer-director Kirk Jones ("Waking Ned Devine").
This may be the two-hankie pick of the holiday season.
Frank Goode (De Niro) is a sympathetic character. After 41 years of marriage and a household bustling with four children, he's now alone. He worked hard to provide for his family, while leaving the parenting and family-glue details to his wife. His nagging regret is having ignored his kids, whom he hopes to get around the same table once again. Scattered across the country with busy adult lives, they individually call at the last minute to say they can't attend Frank's much-anticipated family reunion, the first since their mother's death eight months ago. So dear old dad decides to surprise each one with a visit.
Unlike Jack Nicholson's Warren Schmidt, this widower travels against his doctor's orders and takes trains, buses and trucks to get to his destinations. Artist David (Austin Lysy) lives in a rough New York City neighborhood. He's not home, so Frank slips a mysterious envelope under his door and heads off to visit Amy (Kate Beckinsale), an ad agent in Chicago; musician Robert (Sam Rockwell) in Denver; and Las Vegas dancer Rosie (Drew Barrymore). He begins to realize that all of them are lying to him. Everybody's not so fine.
Poignant moments set the tone. Frank's careful preparations for the family get-together convey his excitement more than words, and his disappointment over the canceled plans is palpable. But he never complains. Your heart goes out to the quiet man with the endearing sense of humor, who doesn't own a cell phone or know that his luggage has a retractable handle. During a low point of his trip, he calls home so he can hear the voice of his deceased wife on the answering machine -- a heartbreaking touch.
Henry Braham's cinematography captures images of isolation: empty terminals, long hallways, desolate rural and urban landscapes. Frank's lone figure, framed in the environment, expresses the solitude of his emotional life. Compositions of telephone wires, humming with the voices of connected people, are the most compelling motifs -- particularly since Frank spent a lifetime coating a million feet of phone wire with PVC so his brood could have a better future.
Insights about human relationships, regret and redemption are undercut by the movie's melodramatic flourishes. A storm threatens. Nightmares come true. And every plot point feels predictable. Yet the protagonist's attempt to pull himself and his family together elicits powerful emotions, whether during the holidays or any other time of the year.