Denver plays a small part in Everybody's Fine, the tearjerking family drama disguised in recent trailers as a feel-good holiday film starring Robert De Niro.
Unfortunately, the Mile High City needed a stand-in. Like almost everything else these days, you can blame it on the economy. The Denver scenes were actually shot in New Haven, Conn.
Writer-director Kirk Jones (Waking Ned Devine, Nanny McPhee) went to great lengths to shoot his first American film - a remake of Giuseppe Tornatore's 1990 Stanno tutti bene - that would "show off your country." Saying he stayed in the cheapest hotels he could find, the British native traveled across America, hitting New York, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Kansas City - even Denver and Leadville, Colorado - to do research for the film.
During a post-show Q&A at the 2009 Starz Denver Film Festival on November 19, Jones said he intended to re-create parts of his cross-country journey that was included in the original budget for the film, "and we would have come to Denver."
However, "financial restrictions" forced Jones to abandon most of those grand plans. So Woolsey Hall on the Yale campus served as the fictitious Denver Orchestra Hall, where dad (De Niro) rolls a piece of baggage with a squeaky wheel through the balcony en route to meeting up with one of his sons, played by Sam Rockwell.
It's one of the few false notes in Everybody's Fine (Miramax Films/Radar Pictures), which will be released nationally December 4. De Niro plays widower Frank Goode, who decides to visit each of his four grownup children in different parts of the country (New York, Chicago, Denver and Las Vegas) after all of them are no-shows for a family reunion/picnic. It would have been the first time for them to reconnect since the funeral for his wife, considered the "glue" that kept the family together, was held eight months earlier. So, Frank surmises, "If you don't come to me, I'll go to you."
Hoping to surprise each of his four children along the way during a road trip filled with buses, trains, a truck and a plane (Frank hates to fly), it's well-meaning dad who realizes his seemingly successful and oh-so-attractive brood (Kate Beckinsale and Drew Barrymore?) haven't been telling him anything about their lives. Their excuse? One of his girls offers, "We tell you the good news and spare you the bad."
While the siblings share secrets, lies and coverups with each other (mostly through phone conversations), dear old dad is left trying to figure out things for himself. Father Knows Best this isn't.
With some comedic moments included (De Niro trying to hit a golf ball is a hoot), this primarily is a touching film that will not only tug at your heart strings, but likely rip them out. In its initial screening in Denver, there was much more sobbing than laughing. (De Niro is shown with Beckinsale.)
Yet it avoids many of today's predictable, soap opera-like tricks utilized in American films, including another recent take on family dysfunction, the disappointing Solitary Man, which also was shown at the festival. Someone's cynical idea of an aging male's wet dream, the movie starring Michael Douglas and Mary-Louise Parker failed on many levels despite its stellar cast.
While Jones added three more days of filming after principal shooting was completed, he said he "made the film I wanted to make." The man who got hooked on filmmaking after watching Tornatore's Cinema Paradiso had finished "an American project I could call my own."
If there's anything heavy-handed about Everybody's Fine, it's the fixation with telephone wires as a metaphor. The wires and telephone poles seen throughout Frank's travels serve as a connection to his former blue-collar job in a factory where he coated "a million feet of wire to get (the children) where they are today." The shots, Jones said, allowed him to show the irony that, "Frank helped so many people communicate, but he couldn't communicate with his own family." (Jones, left, visits with De Niro on the set.)
In perhaps his best performance in years, De Niro succeeds in playing the ordinary guy whose mission in life was "to be a good father." With tender loving care, he displays a delicate touch, thankfully distancing himself from the cartoonish Jack Byrnes in the Meet the Parents/Meet the Fockers series. While not playing quite as quirky or isolated - but just as sympathetic - a character, the home-alone softie is on par with Jack Nicholson's Academy Award-nominated portrayal of a disheartened dad left behind in About Schmidt.
"I like to cast against type," Jones told the Denver crowd. Despite all the crazed, eccentric train wrecks of humanity De Niro has played in the past, Jones said he recognized the intense New York actor as "a guy in his early, mid-60s (actually 66) who has five kids. ... I was very respectful and wrote 62 in the script."
After reading the script and initially thinking he might want to wait another six or seven years to play the part, De Niro "completely understood" what the character was all about, Jones said, adding that he "never met anyone so prepared." They hit it off and plan to work together again soon, the director believes.
Beckinsale (Amy), Barrymore (Rosie) and Rockwell (Robert) also fare well in supporting roles, and Melissa Leo makes a bright and shining cameo as a truck driver who is wise beyond her job description. (Barrymore is shown with De Niro.)
Beckinsale's 10-year-old daughter Lily also appears as the younger Amy. In those scenes, Jones uses a technique (the present-day Frank talking to his prepubescent kids) that any family man (or woman) will find identifiable ... while reaching for a hanky.
"The theme of family is about as universal as you can get," Jones said. "I hope people can really relate to the movie."
Although his father doesn't see any similarities, Jones said he relied on his own Big Daddy to provide many of the film's details, including his taste in music. He remembers easy listening singers such as Perry Como, Johnny Mathis, Frank Sinatra heard throughout the house after dad bought his first stereo. Como's rendition of "Catch a Falling Star" joyfully plays during the opening scene, when Frank tends to his garden and well-manicured lawn while making preparations for the failed reunion.
Adding to Dario Marianelli's score, Jones updates the soundtrack with an original song by Paul McCartney - "(I Want To) Come Home" - that plays over the end credits. Though Jones wasn't born until eight months after the Beatles invaded America, the director still finds the "Cute One" relevant today.
The fact that McCartney, now 67, is a widower (his first wife Linda died in 1998) and a father of grownups made his involvement a no-brainer. Actually, Sir Paul saw an early screening and, "affected by the movie," went to Jones with the idea of writing the song.
"In the back of my mind, I was thinking, 'What if it's awful?' "Jones said, surely aware that he was dealing with one of rock's greatest living songwriters.
Jones realized he was being ridiculous. "I absolutely loved it," he said after hearing McCartney's finished product. "It really seemed to resonate with the film. ... Just perfect for the ending."
That may be true, but if you thought Denver was really Denver, don't get fooled again. In Everybody's Fine, everybody isn't ... what they appear to be. And as emotional and rewarding as the movie is, no one should pretend - especially in a preview clip or a poster - that this is a happy holiday experience.
• Everybody's Fine photos by Abbot Genser/Miramax Film Corp.
• Here's the official trailer for Everybody's Fine:
Follow Michael Bialas on Twitter: www.twitter.com/mjbialas