Frank’s doing fine. Really.
The retiree lost his wife nine months ago. And his lungs, well, a lifetime of work spraying plastic PCB coating on telephone wires ("1,000 miles a week," he tells a woman on a train) hasn’t been great for his breathing.
But he’s doing OK.
He’s even turning over a new leaf or two, like gardening, cooking and, most importantly, trying to renew his relationships with his four adult children.
Frank loves his kids. But actually relating to them? Well, that was mostly Mom’s job. Dad’s role? Drilling into them the importance of excellence. His ethos, boiled down to its essence? "Work hard. Make me proud."
And so they have.
David is an artist in New York. Amy runs a high-powered ad agency in Chicago. Rosie is a professional dancer in Vegas. And Robert? He conducts the prestigious Pacific Northwest Orchestra, currently on a world tour.
Frank’s looking forward to having all four kids home for a reunion he’s been planning, the first since his wife’s death. He’s buying expensive wine ("I wanna make a good impression on my kids"), a new grill, even some filet mignon.
One by one, though, his prosperous progeny inform him that they’re not going to be able to make it home after all. "Too busy," they all say, in one way or another. But they insist they’re looking forward to seeing him, well, sometime soon. Don’t worry about us, Dad, they all say, we’re doing fine.
Still, Frank wants to see them. So even though his doctor says it’s a bad idea, he decides to make surprise visits to each one. And that cross-country odyssey—buses and trains shuttle him from his home in Pennsylvania to New York City, Chicago, Denver and Las Vegas—forces Frank to face the painful reality that everybody is, in fact, not doing fine … and that much of the responsibility for their troubles has to do with his inability to face hard truths.
Everybody’s Fine explores how two of Frank’s character traits—perfectionism and denial of difficult realities—have ultimately wrought havoc in his children’s lives. That Frank has caused such damage over the course of their lifetimes isn’t positive, of course. But the fact that he’s trying to face the truth for the first time in his life is.
Frank’s loneliness in the wake of his wife’s death has inspired him to reconnect with his children. His initiative, though it’s sincere and well-intentioned, is met by evasive excuses and lukewarm responses by his children. Clearly, they’re not interested in seeing him or spending time with him—a reality that sinks in all the more deeply when Frank shows up on their various doorsteps.
Frank is polite and respectful—but crestfallen—as Amy, Robert and Rosie all resist his attempts to relate to them in a new way. And over the course of his impromptu visits, Frank begins to realize that his hard-charging approach to life has practically compelled each of his children to lie to him.
Rosie sums up her siblings’ attitudes when she admits, "We always talked to Mom. Mom was the easiest to talk to. You always worried too much if everything wasn’t perfect. Mom was a good listener. … You pushed us pretty hard."
Then, two crises force this family to come to grips with the truth about their dysfunctional relationships: Frank has a heart attack on the plane home (an obvious metaphor for his broken heart) and David overdoses on drugs.
So the truth comes out, and the family tries to make a fresh start of sorts, symbolized by spending Christmas together. Frank is finally able to say sincerely, "As long as they’re happy, that would be fine with me."
Throughout the film, storms (both literal and metaphorical) are depicted as forces that reveal truths we don’t want to deal with. The hurricane moving steadily up the East Coast, for example, is named Alice—the Greek word for truth, we’re told.
A couple of times Frank talks to his deceased wife as if she could still hear him. Whether or not this is for his own sake or whether he thinks she can hear him in the afterlife is unclear. A dream sequence of sorts involves making peace with David.
It’s said that Rosie can’t decide whether she "likes boys or girls." There’s some evidence of both. She has a baby, perhaps indicating the former. But she comes home for Christmas with a woman who seems to be a romantic partner, indicating the latter.
While Frank’s waiting at his son’s apartment, a scantily clad prostitute asks him, "You wanna see my legs?" and hikes up her already short skirt a bit farther. Frank replies, "You wanna see mine?" Elsewhere, Frank misconstrues a female truck driver’s suggestion about staying at a hotel as a proposition. (It isn’t.)
An effeminate man at Amy’s advertising agency suggestively quips and gestures about the temperature being "a little nippy."
After Frank compassionately gives some money to a homeless man in a bus station hallway, the man tries to mug him and smashes Frank’s bottle of medication with his foot. On an airplane, Frank has what looks like an asthma attack that, we learn later, precipitates his heart attack. He thrashes about in a the airplane’s lavatory before an attendant finds him.
Crude or Profane Language
One f-word, which is combined with an abuse of Christ’s name. There are also three s-words and at least four more exclamations of Jesus’ name. God’s name is misused half-a-dozen times.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Several scenes involve wine at meals; one takes place at a Vegas bar. Twice, Frank goes to the grocery store and purchases wine.
Frank criticizes Robert’s smoking habit. When Robert reminds him that he (Frank) smoked several packs a day for much of his life, Frank simply says that he quit. To please his dad, Robert says that he, too, is quitting, right on the spot—though both seem aware that the vow will likely last only as long as the conversation.
[Spoiler Warning] We learn that when he was about to be arrested for using drugs in a bar, David swallowed them all, which results in an overdose that kills him.
Frank takes prescription medication for his lung condition.
Other Negative Elements
Amy, Rosie and Robert all deceive their father in fairly significant ways. Amy and her husband are separated and moving toward divorce after both, apparently, had affairs. Yet when Frank shows up, they pretend to be a happy couple. In addition, Amy lies about her son Jack’s health and his grades.
Rosie hides the fact that she’s had a baby and that she’s not actually a dancer but a waitress. When her dad shows up she pretends that a friend’s posh apartment is her own and acts as if she’s merely babysitting. As for Robert, well, he’s not really a symphony conductor, merely a percussionist—a truth that’s somehow gotten obscured in his conversations with his dad.
Frank lies too. He refuses to tell his doctor he’s left town even when he desperately needs medication.
Several times we hear a crass saying of Frank’s that has to do with dogs urinating on a wall. A couple of camera shots focus on a stone cherub holding his penis and "urinating" water.
I half expected Harry Chapin’s tear-jerking 1974 classic "Cats in the Cradle" to play during the credits of Everybody’s Fine.
After all, this is a story about a man whose children do, in fact, turn out just like him. Which is to say, they’re busy with life, struggling to make important relationships work and struggling even more to tell themselves and each other the hard truths in their lives.
So it turns out that no one in this movie is actually fine—at least not at first. As they begin to come to grips with their respective disappointments, though, the film inches toward a more hopeful conclusion.
As a busy father (who is himself the son of a busy father), this movie connected with me emotionally. How easy it is, I was reminded, for any of us to make huge mistakes, even as we try our best to do our best … and to get our children to do their best, too. The antidote, we see, is striving to tell the truth—whether that’s to ourselves or to those closest to us.
I talked with Everybody’s Fine director Kirk Jones about how hard it can be to reckon with hard truths in our families. He said, "Frank becomes aware pretty quickly that his wife filtered the news and made his kids sound like they were happier than they were. But what I like about his journey is how he asks the same question of all of his children one way or another. And that is, ’Are you happy?’ That question demonstrates that there has been some change in Frank. When he was younger he felt the need to push them and inspire them to fulfill their potential. But now that he is older, the most important thing is that his children are happy. By the end of the film he’s able to accept the truth about his family."
In that sense, Everybody’s Fine serves as a sentimental—if at times profane—cautionary tale about the perils of perfectionism and the importance of unconditional love.