De Niro’s latest vehicle, a cinematization of a Noël Coward play and the much-lauded Precious all release a lot of hot air – with varying degrees of success.
There’s a very popular theory in American contemporary society that every problem can be solved if we are just open about our needs and discuss them with others. It’s a nice theory, but it presupposes a superhuman tolerance on the part of those others - and also ignores the fact that sometimes our needs can clash irreconcilably with theirs. If your parents are homophobic bigots, telling them you’re gay would end the secrecy, but doesn’t necessarily mean acceptance and happiness all around.
In Everybody’s Fine, Frank Goode’s family certainly has a communication problem: as Frank (De Niro) finds out after his wife’s death, there are a whole lot of things he doesn’t know about his four children. Drug abuse, personal failure, sexual confusion, professional disappointments - not one fulfilled the high hopes he had for them. The grownup kids know about each others’ lives (there’s certainly no lack of communication there), but they all feel conflicted, even guilty, about withholding from Dad. Luckily, the existential crisis all mediocre scriptwriters love brings them all together, illustrating very nicely the flaw in the above-mentioned theory: communication simply leads to talking; it does not automatically lead to harmony. Here, however, it does - which makes Everybody’s Fine a pretty simpleminded, ingratiating feel-good movie (sadly destroying the Giuseppe Tornatore film Stanno tutti bene that it’s based on). Among its middling performances, only Rockwell’s failed musician distinguishes himself - but if you’ve seen him in Moon, you know what he might have been capable of in the hands of a good director, with an intelligent script.
In Easy Virtue, the members of a slowly decaying aristocratic English dynasty are not exactly communicating, but they talk all the time. This mostly means slinging barbs at one another, especially when the prodigal son returns married to - how shocking! - an American woman! She’s supposed to be a good bit older and more experienced than her husband, but unfortunately the casting of Jessica Biel as race-car driving Larita was not exactly a convincing move. Whereas every sentence is leadenly meaningful in Everybody’s Fine, Easy Virtue survives its obvious plot with snappy dialogue. People talk and talk but rarely ever actually say what they mean, at least until the final, very predictable show-down. Luckily, there are few actors who can do this better than Scott Thomas and Firth, who play young John’s parents.
At the other end of the social scale, not saying what you mean is the least of the problems. Indeed, Precious (photo) first hits you with the enormous brutality of Mary (comedienne Mo’Nique, in a courageous departure) telling her teenage daughter Precious (her name is a bitter irony) again and again how useless, ugly and unwanted she is. As a result of psychological and very real physical abuse, Precious (newcomer Gabourey Sidibe) has become incapable of uttering anything above an almost non-verbal mumbling. She does, however - and inexplicably - have an innate sense that what her mother (and everyone else, for that matter) keeps saying about her cannot be right: a sense of self-worth that comes from nowhere but cannot be suppressed. What she achieves comes from herself entirely, which is what makes Precious so uplifting. It’s not the therapeutic openness American pop culture seems to embrace; a scene at a social worker’s office in which Precious’ mother recounts the abuse she herself was subjected to is mainly there to provide an explanation for a middleclass audience. When Precious is finally equipped to talk back to her mother, she chooses not to even engage in a conversation. And that’s the moment when she really begins to shine.
EASY VIRTUE (EINE UNMORALISCHE EHEFRAU) (UK, Canada 2008) Directed by Stephan Elliott, with Jessica Biel, Kristin Scott Thomas, Colin Firth. Starts March 25. Rating: 2/4
EVERYBODY’S FINE (USA 2009) Directed by Kirk Jones, with Robert De Niro, Drew Barrymore, Kate Beckinsale, Sam Rockwell. Starts March 18. Rating: 1/4
PRECIOUS (DAS LEBEN IST KOSTBAR) (USA 2009) Directed by Lee Daniels, with Gabourey Sidibe, Mo’Nique. Starts March 25. Rating: 3/4