In life, the illusion of control is simultaneously one of our greatest coping mechanisms and weaknesses. Believing the world is an orderly place lends a great sense of comfort " that is, until something happens to remind us we're little bits of meat hurtling through space on a wet rock. Then that comfort disappears, leaving us clawing unprepared at nothingness.
Directed by Kirk Jones ("Nanny McPhee"), "Everybody's Fine" is about a guy whose sense of order, which happens to be attached to his children, steadily degrades as he becomes reacquainted with them.
Robert De Niro ("Righteous Kill") stars as eight-months-widowed retiree Frank Goode. He's expecting a visit from his four children, Rosie (Drew Barrymore, "Whip It"), Robert (Sam Rockwell, "Moon"), Amy (Kate Beckinsdale, "Whiteout") and David (Austin Lysy, "Hitch"). The day before, just as Frank has everything prepared, each of the kids calls in turn with weak excuses about why they can't come. Frank never hears from David, who is an artist and hadn't even really confirmed to begin with.
Determined to facilitate the idyllic visit he has been imagining, Frank sets out on the train to surprise his progeny. He begins with David, who isn't in his New York loft, so Frank moves on to Chicago, where Amy is a high-powered advertising executive.
Things are not quite right there; there's an odd tension between Amy's husband (Damian Young, "Sex and the City: The Movie") and her son, and she makes up more excuses to get Dad out the door and back on the road. Frank takes the lies and strangeness amicably, pretending he doesn't notice what's going on.
He moves on to Denver to visit Robert, who works as a percussionist in an orchestra and is also acting sketchy, lying about having to travel to Europe that night. He sends Frank on to Las Vegas to meet Rosie. Her story doesn't add up, either, and Frank spends the evening in what he suspects is a borrowed apartment with a baby that may be his grandson.
Frank has convinced himself that his children are successful and happy, and that he knows their lives. In reality, he has always been kept in the dark about the unpleasant details, because he's a worrier and has a tendency to lecture about what his family should and shouldn't be doing. Once he takes the initiative to find out what's really going on, his illusions about the family mythology he and his wife created over the years are destroyed, and he's forced to accept their world as it really is.
Fortunately, "Everybody's Fine" has a script that's good enough to support its high-profile cast. Frank has enough depth for De Niro to settle in and bring him to life, and he's pitch-perfect as a man shaken loose from his moorings, wandering his soul's nighttime landscape.
The only misstep is a dream journey to the center of Frank's emotional Earth toward the end, which is a bit hackneyed, but doesn't come close to ruining the whole.