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Paternal Instinct: Robert De Niro travels across the country to find Drew Barrymore.

Seething Bull

Robert De Niro plays a lonely father trying to connect with his scattered spawn in 'Everybody's Fine'

By Richard von Busack

WITHIN ITS LIMITS, Everybody's Fine is an honorable holiday entertainment, sweetened by a happy ending. Robert De Niro expertly downplays the lead role of an upstate New York widower trying to investigate what became of his family.

Every single one of his four children has canceled out of a family reunion via the telephone, citing work and other stresses. Left in solitude, Frank comes up with a bad plan: he'll surprise his four children in the cities where they live. He'll travel by land; his lungs, scarred from years with working with polyvinyl chloride, won't let him fly.

Frank arrives in New York City, but David, his eldest son, is nowhere to be found--the only evidence the son has been there is one of his paintings in the window of a local gallery. Moving on to Chicago via Amtrak, the old man interrupts the life of his high-powered advertising executive daughter Amy (Kate Beckinsale in a very unglam performance) and his grandson Jack (Lucian Maisel).

There isn't room for Frank there, either, so he heads off to Denver, where he's told that his son Robert (Sam Rockwell) is conducting a symphony orchestra. En route, Frank is proud to see the telephone wires passing his train window, because it was his job to oversee the weatherizing of cables with PVC. He doesn't know that the buzzing wires are carrying worried messages between his children. They have the word out that the old man is trying to surprise them. Worse, the missing elder son, David, is in serious legal trouble in Mexico.

In Las Vegas, where Frank stays with the Cordelia of the bunch, the film is at its warmest. Drew Barrymore plays daughter Rosie, picking Frank up and making him welcome, although her own story of success is just as false as the other offspring's. Barrymore's anti-glamour and the cozy richness of her flesh are, as always, appealing. And after watching a likable, untroublesome man being passed off from child to child, it's only human to want to see someone welcome him. However, when you watch someone as comfortable-looking as Barrymore, it's hard to imagine why she would lie to a working-class father.

We're wrapping up a decade of diminished hopes and expectations, a decade when a father might find any child "fine" who has a job and a roof over their head. De Niro's efforts to make Everybody's Fine appealing also mean that the role was beefed up for him as a movie star. Frank is virile enough to fight off a mugger, for instance, and he gets flirted with by a truck driver played in a cameo by the superb Melissa Leo.

We don't see something essential in Frank--the push in him that made his children decide that they would rather lie to him than admit that they haven't lived up to his expectations.

This sounds like I've torn the film apart. Actually, I was amused by its essential dignity: the light conversations on a train with a stranger, the rich welcome Rosie gives her traveling father. British director Kirk Jones (Waking Ned Devine) is a little myopic when it comes to class in America--blue-collar men don't necessarily push their children into the arts.

But one cuts holiday movies slack--and Everybody's Fine makes the sensible choice to wrap the action up around snow, Christmas trees and good old C-9 Christmas lights. We will forgive the film's open ends when we ponder the family and how it inexplicably grows apart.

Movie Times EVERYBODY'S FINE (PG-13; 100 min.), directed and directed by Kirk Jones, written by Jones, Masimo De Rita, Tonino Guerra and Giuseppe Tornatore, photographed by Henry Braham and starring Robert De Niro and Drew Barrymore, opens Friday countywide.

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