Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Released this week on DVD: "Everybody's Fine"

Grade: C-minus

In order to make clear what's wrong with the dull and inert Everybody's Fine, I need to distinguish sentiment from sentimentality.

Sentiment is an emotional sensation born of experience and circumstance. It arises from a combination of memory, mood, and conditions. It is earned through the hard work of living, thinking and feeling. It is irreducible, inimitable, real.

Sentimentality, on the other hand, occurs when art -- make that "bad art" -- seeks to evoke emotions by manipulating various symbols of emotion. In the place of genuine feeling, sentimentality substitutes decoration that hearkens to feelings. It is skin-deep, artificial, fleeting. It is a fake.

Taking this further, the sentimentalist, someone who attempts to gull an audience into a cheap emotion or is guiled into cheap emotion by a show of mere symbols, is, at best, simple or inexperienced -- a child, say -- or, at worst, a thief. As Oscar Wilde explained, "A sentimentalist is simply one who desires to have the luxury of an emotion without paying for it."

Everybody's Fine is, alas, rife with sentimentality. It's based on a 1990 film of the same name by Giuseppe Tornatore starring Marcello Mastroianni as a widower visiting his grown children, each of whom has lied to him about his or her life. The film served as a litmus test for admirer's of Tornatore's Cinema Paradiso, which, in the view of many, danced along the dotted line separating real emotion from faux. But where Cinema Paradiso had ardent admirers and won prizes, including an Oscar, Everybody's Fine has been largely forgotten except by Mastroianni completists.

Likely a similar fate awaits this Everybody's Fine, with the admirers of Robert De Niro doing the chores. Under the auspices of writer-director Kirk Jones (Waking Ned Devine, Nanny McPhee), De Niro players Frank, widowed, hidebound, retired from decades of (oh! the irony) manufacturing telecommunications wiring, and off on a spontaneous road trip to see his four grown children.

We watch through a grimace as De Niro pretends to be a suburban simpleton who thinks imported wines come from England and wanders in an unsuspecting stupor from one fraudulent situation to another, dropping in on Drew Barrymore, Kate Beckinsale, and Sam Rockwell, all of whom are far closer to the bottom -- professionally or personally -- than they've let their dad know.

Along the way, Jones pushes us into one sentimentalist trap after another. Whenever Frank sees one of his children for the first time, for instance, we're shown an actual child, not the grown actor, as though the very sight of an unsullied youth somehow makes the contrivances of the plot more poignant. The death of a character we never meet is revealed through a speech soaked in crocodile tears, asking the audience, in effect, to mourn not the person but the very thought of mortality. And a tacked-on Yuletide coda, coming after hours of dysfunction, deceit and death, stands as a near-parodic use of fake snow and colored lights to wring sad-happy tears from viewers.

It's offensive, really, this blatant pandering to emotions. Consider a true classic of deep sentiment, It's a Wonderful Life, in contrast. When George Bailey loses his world near the end of that film, we cry because we saw that world be built brick by brick beneath beneath him -- indeed, beneath us -- and then felt a sickening vertigo as the certainty of it disappeared. Here, conversely, we're told explicitly how we should feel and offered shortcuts to those feelings, but we never undergo anything like the experience that would, in life, yield those feelings, and we therefore never come close to a real emotion. Indeed, following Wilde's dictum, we are robbed -- or, at least, prodded toward abetting our own robbery.

Yes, there are a handful of scenes in which the masterful De Niro cranks up his craft and makes Frank seem human and alive. But they are the sad exceptions in this slick and fraudulent pageant of cheap sentimentality.

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