Everybody's Fine is among the most competent Christmas dramas you will find. The final revelations of this story are somewhat predictable, but the emotional punch is quite the opposite. Robert De Niro gives what is probably his most effective performance since Meet the Parents, and perhaps this is the role he's meant to play in the latter stages of his career. He can no longer bring life to the Jake LaMottas of the world, but as the tough-nose, oftentimes over-demanding father, he seems as comfortable as ever. His performance is the driving force behind this Kirk Jones film, and what an impressive film it is.

This time around, De Niro's character is Frank Goode, a widower and retired telephone-wire man, who is preparing for a holiday visit from his four children. There is Amy (Kate Beckinsale), an owner of a big-time advertising agency, Robert (Sam Rockwell), a struggling musician, Rosie (Drew Barrymore), a Las Vegas dancer, and David (Austin Lysy), a lonely New York artist. After Frank spends a day buying a grill, tidying up the garden, and testing out all sorts of wines, he turns on his answering machine to find out that each one of his children has canceled their trip. While Frank listens to these messages, his expression tells us that he isn't all that surprised, although he is certainly disappointed.

A visit from the doctor discourages the cross-country visit Frank hopes to embark on, but his determination gets the better of him. Taking into account his health situation and his apparent distaste for airplanes, Frank travels his journey interchangeably between buses and trains. As he goes from city to city, none of the kids seem to be comfortable with him there, and excuses are made to keep him from staying for multiple days. Mostly through telephone conversations between the siblings, there are hints dropped as to why they don't want Frank staying with them. There is an ironic quality to the way the children hide their secrets through the telephone lines Frank worked so hard to build, and Jones isn't shy about displaying it. While some might argue this metaphor was overused, I found it to be a unique and original storytelling tool.

Unsurprisingly, Everybody's Fine lands on solid ground largely because of its accomplished cast, but these actors, especially De Niro and Rockwell, are doing more than just phoning it in. This doesn't feel like the usual, cliched Christmas film we are used to getting year in and year out. Granted, there are some predictable moments, and I could have done without a few of Frank's "flashbacks," but the film has some unexpected emotional depth.

The premise of the film is more powerful than you might think. De Niro's believable, emotional performance goes a long way to defining what the film is about. There's isn't a whole lot of back-story conveyed through the film's dialogue, but the actors are able to make their characters dimensional. For a seemingly generic genre entry, Everybody's Fine is also very well-written. There isn't any wasted conversation, and the film moves along at a solid pace as a result. Jones directs this film with a purpose, and it has a lively feel that is contagious. Every scene serves to move the story along in some way, and it's tough not to get caught up in the rush.

This is a film that might have been hurt by its marketing. The trailer and the advertisements went a long way to making Everybody's Fine feel like an average feel-good holiday dramedy, but it is far too polished for such a demeaning label. In fact, it is far from a feel-good film. It packs an emotional bite that few films from 2009 can equal, and it does it in such a simple way. It never tries to out-step its boundaries, but Jones is also smart enough not to direct down to the genre. It is one of the most underrated films of 2009, and it is also just one heck of a treat to see Robert De Niro, one of the most iconic actors of his time, in respectable, moving form once again.

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