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Films: Everybody's fine * * *

One of the great pleasures of cinema-going is to come across performances so convincing that it appears that the actor isn't really acting at all.

It's a magnificent deception when it works and depends not only on the thespian involved having developed the skills to carry off such an illusion, but also part of the deal lies with the audience having formed an impression of what the performer is really like over the years.

Last week, for example, we saw Jeff Bridges give what's almost certain to be an Oscar-winning performance in Crazy Heart, a light enough movie made compelling by his laid-back portrayal of a broken-down country singer which came across as so real it looked effortless. Well, this week it's the turn of another veteran to tone things down to the minimum in order to serve the story, and it's a pleasure to watch Robert De Niro make a film his own without appearing to try a leg.

A remake of Giuseppe Tornatore's 1990 movie starring Marcello Mastroianni, Everybody's Fine is a light drama about age, regret, disappointment and family which doesn't quite carry the heft of the Italian original -- after all that came from the man who gifted the world Cinema Paradiso whereas Kirk Jones's CV consists of Waking Ned and Nanny McPhee -- but boasts a strong cast and a marvellous turn from its lead.

De Niro plays Frank Goode, retired, widowed and not in the best of health. We first encounter him planning a dinner for his four adult children before three of them, ad executive Amy (Kate Beckinsale), conductor Robert (Sam Rockwell) and Las Vegas dancer Rosie (Drew Barrymore) cancel citing various reasons, while he's unable to contact his fourth child, the New York-based artist David. Suspecting that the excuses given for not attending the gathering belong in 'the dog ate my homework' category, Frank sets out to visit each of them.

What he discovers as he travels to New York, Chicago, Denver and Las Vegas forms the meat of the movie, with De Niro a study in restrained disappointment as he realises that all is not what he thought. The little clues as to what's really going on with his children's lives are fed out slowly to let the audience build up suspicion, the exception being an open encounter with the always-fine Sam Rockwell which is the only occasion De Niro allows Frank's normally placid and controlled character to approach anything like an emotional outburst.

There are definite touches of About Schmidt in the subject matter, while the way ageing parents become distant from their children's lives echoes Ozu's classic Tokyo Story, but, while Everybody's Fine doesn't come near the impact of either of those movies, it's a solid film which mostly resists the urge to slip into sentimentality. Kirk Jones does a workman-like job, but the real joy of the project is seeing Robert De Niro, at 67, playing a normal man of a similar vintage and making him come alive on screen. Somehow I doubt that he'll be as restrained in the forthcoming Little Fockers. HHHII