“Everyone’s been asking how we’re doing this week,” film critic-turned-AFI programmer Robert Koehler said, shortly before a screening of Juan José Campanella’s Argentinean murder mystery “The Secret of Their Eyes.” “And the answer is our sponsors.” Indeed, thanks to chief sponsor Audi, AFI has responded to an economy that’s been particularly unkind to film festivals with free tickets that have ensured capacity attendance to most, if not all, of their screenings at the Mann’s Chinese Theaters in Hollywood.
Even the more obscure titles that Koehler and his team have programmed, like Philippe Grandrieux’s “The Lake” or the Spanish Berlinale winner “The Milk of Sorrow,” have seen solid attendance. But the fact that so many have been asking the question is more telling than the answer — with a changing audience profile (a Bugs Bunny impersonator wandered into Tuesday’s screening of “Youth in Revolt” in full costume from entertaining on the Hollywood Walk of Fame right outside) and speculation about what the great turnout might even mean for the future of the festival.
The strange mood was passed on to the festival’s one true world premiere, “Everybody’s Fine,” which could hardly describe the bittersweet nature of the evening. The week before, the film’s distributor Miramax let go of their president, Daniel Battsek, and was reduced to a smaller operation. Shortly after he was appointed, Battsek surprised everyone by coming out swinging when he took over from Miramax founders Bob and Harvey Weinstein with a streak of hits like “The Queen” and “No Country for Old Men.” He seems, strangely, to have come full circle in making a film that Harvey would’ve gladly greenlit in his day as his swan song for the company. In fact, Harvey did distribute the 1990 Giuseppe Tornatore film that “Everybody’s Fine” is based on.
There are worse ways to go out. Without Miramax, there aren’t many places left to put out this kind of cinematic comfort food that the major studios have abandoned in favor of financing would-be blockbusters and that edgier independents have rarely shown an interest in. (For those who still wax nostalgic about Miramax’s days as part of that second category, this has been a tragedy long settled.) And if there was ever a director to handle such material, it’s Kirk Jones, who proved a particularly human touch with 1998’s “Waking Ned Devine” before stumbling with the excesses of food fights and facial boils in the kiddie comedy “Nanny McPhee.”
“Everybody’s Fine” indulges both those impulses, with the former unfortunately giving into the latter in the story of a retired widower (Robert De Niro) who tires of his daily routine of puttering around the house and sets off to surprise each of his four kids who have settled around the country. Contrary to the actual De Niro, who introduced the film in typical brevity by saying, “Well, okay, I have to say something,” Frank is a talkative type, prone to having wistful conversations without everyone around, musing to his fellow train passengers about the PVC coating he applied to the miles of phone line that they pass, wondering about the good news and the bad news that have come across “my wires.”
Little does Frank know that there’s plenty of bad news being splashed across those wires by his children, who have a far easier time talking to each other than to their demanding dad. As Frank visits Chicago to see his ad exec daughter Amy (Kate Beckinsale), Denver for his classical musician son Robert (Sam Rockwell) and Las Vegas for his dancer daughter Rosie (Drew Barrymore), he’s unaware that his unsuccessful first visit to see his troubled son David in New York is a major cause for concern to the rest of the family that serves as the film’s throughline.
While Beckinsale, Barrymore and Rockwell all give their characters more definition and vibrancy than they probably deserve, “Everyody’s Fine” is really just a showcase for De Niro to do his best “About Schmidt” impression. Though he tries admirably, he’s stuck with Jones’ obvious allegiance to Tornatore’s original film, which dabbled in dream sequences and flashbacks that weren’t entirely successful in emphasizing the patriarch’s disconnect with his children even in 1990 or from the guy who worked his magic on “Cinema Paradiso.” Interestingly enough, Jones, a Brit, said before the premiere that that it took him a long time to have “the courage to make a film here [in the U.S.],” which makes his strange choice to remake an Italian melodrama something altogether foreign.
As for Bob and Harvey themselves, the brothers Weinstein had three films to present at AFI — “The Road,” “Youth in Revolt” and the Toronto pick-up “A Single Man,” and while I can only speak for the latter two, the films connected in a way that has been rare for the pair’s much-maligned post-Miramax era. However, the success of “Youth in Revolt” didn’t come easy.