What caused tough-guy Robert De Niro to turn into such a simpering wimp? Travis Bickle, we hardly knew ye. And it’s staggering to think that the same guy who played the crazed cabbie in “Taxi Driver” is now doing his hack work in something as pedestrian as director Kirk Jones’ feel-good family drool.

It isn’t the plot about a blue-collar father sacrificing everything for his kids that got to me in “Everybody’s Fine.” It was the perplexing question of what caused tough-guy Robert De Niro to turn into such a simpering wimp?


Travis Bickle, we hardly knew ye. And it’s staggering to think that the same guy who played the crazed cabbie in “Taxi Driver” is now doing his hack work in something as pedestrian as director Kirk Jones’ feel-good family drool.


It’s almost too embarrassing to watch. But, hey, it’s De Niro, so you stick with his one-note portrayal of Frank Goode, the proverbial Everyman out to reconnect with his long-neglected sons and daughters.


In mood, tone and pacing, Jones (“Waking Ned Devine”) works hard to sculpt a bittersweet ode to family and the redemptive power of love. But the sap is just too deep to maneuver in.


It’s a problem compounded by the unmistakable feeling that you’ve seen this movie before. You know, the one where Dad worked his fingers to the nub trying to provide for his ungrateful children.


That’s Frank through and through, a recent widower who spent most of his life away from home hanging thousands of miles of telephone wire across the country. While he was dirtying his hands and contracting a chronic breathing disease, his four children were living on easy street. And all Dad asked for in return was for them to achieve a modicum of success.


Like “Brothers,” another cookie-cutter remake of a much better foreign film this week, “Everybody’s Fine” simplifies and schmaltzifies on the original. In this case, Guiseppe Tornatore’s acclaimed 1990 film of the same name.


This new, less-involving version opens eight months after the death of Frank’s wife. Just enough time for the bounce in his step to return, as he preps his home for a weekend visit by the kids.


As he shops and cleans it dawns on him that his only connection to the four was through his late wife. He doesn’t even know what kind of food they eat, or what wine they drink. So he buys all the expensive stuff. But as Frank is assembling a new grill, each of them calls and leaves a message saying that they won’t be able to make it.


Sad and in an effort to “get them all around the same table,” Frank embarks on an unannounced cross-country journey and drops-in on the kids – played by Kate Beckinsale, Drew Barrymore, Sam Rockwell and Austin Lysy – one by one.


What he discovers is that all four have been sugarcoating their career status in order to appease him. None wanted to let Dad down, nor did they want to let him in emotionally.


Well, not until the script ham-handedly forces them to in a maudlin third act when Frank ends up on his back in a hospital bed and the movie ends up flat on its face.


It’s frustrating to watch as it strains credulity. Come on! What kid would kick to the curb their health-compromised father? And why Frank lets it happen is even more preposterous. The guy who once ruled with an iron fist has become an eager-to-please pushover. You expect a De Niro character to be layered and explosive, not an emasculated old man. The only exception occurs in a Nevada train depot, where Frank goes all “De Niro” on the junkie who tried to steal his wallet.


It’s refreshing to see an actor leave their comfort zone, but not De Niro, or, for that matter, the rest of the cast.


None of it feels organic or original, as details of the family’s back story unfold in phone conversations over the same wires Frank installed, or from other devices and gimmicks, like an answering machine or, yikes, flashback. Jones was going for nuance and forgot to hang meat on his film’s bones.


The charming Rockwell plays Robert, a musician and the one character you most want to learn more about. Then there’s daughter, Rosie (Barrymore), the most transparent of the four, and not just because she’s lying about being a Vegas showgirl. Barrymore? A free spirit? Imagine that. Figuring out her story is a no-brainer.


The always lovely Beckinsale, who plays ad executive Amy, gets the most screen time with Dad, and there’s an easy rapport in the scenes she and De Niro share.


The subplot that develops around son, David (Lysy), an artist in New York City, comes to fruition in a pivotal scene that sets up the gift-wrapped ending at Christmastime. But there are no gifts under the tree for the audience. All its left with is a big lump of coal and a fading memory of what Robert De Niro used to be.





The Patriot Ledger