Unbelievable interactions prove the undoing of ‘Everybody’s Fine’

21 12 2009

Director: Kirk Jones

Starring: Robert DeNiro, Drew Barrymore, Kate Beckinsale & Sam Rockwell

Released: Dec. 4, 2009

Incorrectly and unfairly advertised as a Christmas movie, Kirk Jones’ 2009 dramedy Everybody’s Fine leaves viewers with a feeling very much the opposite.

Set in August, Robert DeNiro plays Frank, a retired father of four who is struggling with the loss of his wife. His wife was the one who always kept in touch with the kids and he is unsure of how to interact with them now that she is gone, leaving him more alone than he thought possible.

He tries to reach out to them in the only way he knows how – by inviting them to a backyard barbecue, as that is what he remembers most about their family when the children were little – but his eager enthusiasm is thwarted as life gets in the way and none of the children can make it home.

In one of the few moments that evokes empathy for Frank, he listens to the messages of his kids bailing on the weekend as he looks at the photos of them when they were younger.

And just like that the sympathy dries up as Frank makes the decision that he is going to visit the kids. And not just any visit. He is leaving immediately and without warning so as to surprise them.

On his journey to his first son, David’s, house in New York, the thread tying the movie together is introduced. It turns out that Frank spent his life working in a plant that manufactures the coating that surrounds telephone wires. As he travels across the country, he gazes out the windows of the trains and buses he uses to traverse the country at these wires and we hear the snippets of conversation his children are having with each other. And they’re all discussing David.

When Frank arrives at David’s apartment he isn’t home. So Frank waits. And waits. And waits. Until he finally decides it’s not a good idea to wait on the steps of a sketchy brownstone in the artist district of New York and gets a motel room for the night before heading to the midwest to visit his daughter.

On his trip, we hear his daughter, Rosie (Drew Barrymore), asking her sister Amy (Kate Beckinsale) if she’s heard from David. Amy says no, and as they hang up we arrive outside Amy’s home in Chicago. The unexpected visit throws Amy for a loop and she sends Frank outside with her son.

DeNiro shines as he interacts with Lucian Maisel’s Jack. Maisel nails his role as a teenager who is skeptical that his grandfather can do relate to him, and DeNiro, who’s always excellent as a grandfatherly figure, tries his best to seem cool. Their banter about golfing is lighthearted and a welcome break in the tension of Frank not knowing what’s going on in his kid’s lives.

Amy and her family prove too busy for a lengthy visit with Frank, but that doesn’t stop him from witnessing Jack’s blow up at his father or from Frank to unexpectedly meet Amy’s coworker as she waits with him for his train at the airport.

If movie cliches’ aren’t your forte, as they obviously aren’t Frank’s, it’s clear that Amy and her husband are no longer living together, which angers Jack, and Amy has started seeing her coworker.

While it’s understandable that Amy wouldn’t want her dad to know that she’s having marital problems, his visit would have been a great time to tell him, but instead she shunts him onto a train to sibling number three, Robert, a “conductor” for a traveling symphony.

Robert isn’t a conductor, though, as Frank soon realizes when he sees him playing percussion in the symphony. Either Frank misunderstood his wife’s relaying of the message, or he chose to believe what he wanted, but he’s shocked and disappointed, nonetheless.

The terrific Sam Rockwell, coming off of amazing turns in Frost/Nixon and Moon, plays Robert in such a hapless and despondent way that it makes it believable that he wouldn’t want to correct his father’s glorified vision of his profession. Still, he’s busy as well and immediately turns around to put his dad on a bus to Las Vegas, where he’ll visit with Rosie.

All the while we’re hearing snippets of conversation about the elusive David, who appears to have gotten himself arrested for drug possession in Mexico, until Drew Barrymore picks up her father – a little worse for wear as he got into a fight at the train station – in a limo.

She discusses how the show she was a dancer in ended the week before Frank’s visit but she wants him to come see her next one as they drive down the strip towards the Luxor and Mandalay Bay to her condo next to the Stratosphere (anyone with a general knowledge of Vegas would recognize the fact that these locations are on opposite ends of the strip). They’re supposed to go to dinner in the Stratosphere, but those plans are derailed as Rosie’s neighbor brings her baby down with a plea for an emergency babysitter.

As movie cliches’ go, we’re up to two glaring monstrosities as it’s obvious from the loving gaze Rosie shoots her father as he plays with the baby that Frank is actually holding his grandchild for the first time.

Things start falling into place in Frank’s mind and he decides he has to leave for home the next day to sort things out in his mind. En route, he has a heart attack which induces a strange dream sequence in which he confronts all of his children, as children, about why they lied to him, which is where the movie completely derails.

While the dream sequence clears any questions one might have had about the identity of Rosie’s baby and the fact that she’s a waitress on the strip instead of a dancer, or the state of Amy’s marriage up, it breaks up the flow of the movie and tells the audience everything they already know.

The heart attack brings all of his children to his bedside, though, so in a way, they’re all together, just as he wanted. Until he forces them to tell him that David is dead, which is where the train, which has already derailed, is hit by another train to create a whole mess of craziness.

It’s understandable that one might not want their father to find out that they’re having marital problems, or are a percussionist instead of a conductor, or are questioning your sexual orientation, but it’s quite another to not tell your father that one of his children is dead. That’s not the type of information you keep from a parent, ever.

But this movie has a happy ending, as Frank forgives his children for not telling him one of his offspring is dead in Mexico and they all get together for a happy-go-lucky family friendly Christmas.

Final verdict: The completely unbelievable plot line is only slightly forgiven with a masterful turn by Sam Rockwell and Lucian Maisel’s interactions with the grandfatherly DeNiro, but that doesn’t stop this movie from being REALLY CRAPPY.

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Whip It!

20 10 2009

Director: Drew Barrymore

Starring: Ellen Page, Drew Barrymore, Kristen Wiig, Juliet Lewis & Landon Pigg

Released: Oct. 2, 2009

The story of Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut is familiar. “Alternative” girl pushed to do something she doesn’t enjoy by her parents finds something she loves but has to hide. Eventually that blows up and the rest of the movie is spent picking up the pieces.

The difference with “Whip It!,” however, is some witty dialogue, killer performances by the cast (these characters could be who Lewis, Barrymore and Wiig really are when they aren’t acting) and a kick ass sport that is rarely featured in mainstream America – Roller Derby.

Even if you’ve never seen a derby, or understand the main point of the game, the F. you attitude of the derby girls and empowering feeling these women seem to get from hip checking and beating the crap out of each other is awesome and infectious.

Bliss (Ellen Page) doesn’t really know where her life is going at the beginning of the movie.  There are hints that she used to be “normal” with a guarded back story when a popular classmate who seems to have been a former friend asks if she’s “alternative” now. Bliss’ simple answer? “Alternative to what?”

That non-confrontational, simply inquisitive attitude takes Bliss through life. Her mother wants her to be in pageants, she competes in pageants. She dyes her hair blue but doesn’t fight her mom when they go to a professional to re-dye it brown, and so on.

It isn’t until a shopping trip to Austin that Bliss starts to question if there is something else out there for her.

When her mom refuses to buy boots from a head shop, Bliss puts up a whiny front, but doesn’t seem as though she’s going to put her foot down and pay the bill herself. That is, until three women on roller skates come in to drop off flyers for the derby. The look on Bliss’ face is no longer one of inquiry and non-confrontation, instead it’s inquiry and admiration. The roller skating women don’t seem to care what others think of them, and as Bliss pays for her boots, she grabs a flyer to take to her best friend, Pash (Alia Shawkat).

The first introduction to the sport is through a glimpse of an exhibition game between the Hurl Scouts and the Holy Rollers (themed after the girl scouts and Catholic school girls, respectively). From the minute Iron Maven (Juliet Lewis) and her Rollers sweep Smashley Simpson (Barrymore) and Maggie Mayhem’s (Kristen Wiig) Scouts, Bliss is hooked – Mayhem has even invited her to tryouts the next week. The only problem? Bliss is 17 and you have to be 21 to compete.

Bliss disregards the rule and signs up as a 22-year-old, quickly standing out in the crowd as a speed demon on skates. She’s assigned to the floundering Hurl Scouts, a team without a lot of direction led by their coach, Razor (Andrew Wilson, yet another sibling from Luke and Owen’s clan who seems to be in his breakout role after appearing as unimportant characters in his brother’s movies). After a humiliating example of why Razor’s plays will help the Scouts win matches, the ladies decide the should pay attention to him and slowly rise up the ranks of the six team league (all with amazing names, but none as good as the Hurl Scouts) to play Maven and Co. once again in the championship.

Along the way, Bliss finds herself as she identifies with the devil may care attitudes of the women. She stands up for herself against bullying classmates and at work, and has a purpose in life that is more than just doing what her mother wants in pageants. She even finds a boyfriend – the older, guitar-playing Oliver (Landon Pigg, a musician in his first acting role), who’s band is booking gigs on a tour that will take him away from Bliss for a month.

The boyfriend and the best friend butt heads when Bliss leaves a derby with Oliver while Pash gets arrested for underage drinking which leads to Bliss’ two worlds colliding. Her parents find out about her derby days and forbid her from competing, leading to bliss running to Maggie Mayhem for help.

She’s surprised to find, though, that Mayhem has a child of her own and can identify with what how Bliss’ mother is acting. This, along with feeling abandoned by Oliver, who has appeared to have cheated on tour, leads Bliss home, where she falls in line with her mother’s wishes and agrees to participate in an important pageant – which predictably falls on the same night as the championship derby.

The rest of the movie is one cliche after another and the situation works itself out so Bliss can compete in the derby and her parents overcome their desire to shelter her from situations and people who are different from them. They see that Bliss has finally found something she loves, and support her.

Even though the movie is predictable, it’s still visually stunning. The scenes at the derby are amazing, especially when you realize the actress’ did their own stunts. One can imagine some of the bruises the ladies sport in the film were more real than not at times.

The movie also banks on some big name comedic actors, though many of them don’t get the attention the deserve – most notably, Jimmy Fallon in a horribly underutilized role as the derby announcer.

What makes the movie great, though, is the fact that it’s a coming of age story set around a sport we haven’t seen too much of. Bliss isn’t growing into herself by kicking goals or shooting hoops, she’s hip-checking and out-maneuvering women with names like Rosa Sparks (Eve) and Jaba the Slut.

It’s also the perfect next step for Ellen Page, who came off the huge role of Juno with a few lesser-known roles. This puts Page right back in the spotlight as the up and coming actress she truly is. And while comparisons to Juno are inevitable, Page holds her own by melding into Bliss and making you forget that we’ve seen this girl as a pregnant teenager before. The veteran actresses also do a great job of making sure Page isn’t outshined.

Overall, this movie was well worth the exorbitant amount of money any movie theater will make you pay to see it.

Rating: Very good.