The trailer for this film is provocative: ‘Sometimes the only way to get the truth is to go out and find it.’ Actually, that statement couldn’t be more truthful. The film is one that makes you think ‘one day this could well be me’ – as a child dealing with an ageing parent and as a parent, dealing with your children who have grown away from you. Frank played by Robert De Niro, recently widowed, invites his four children round to dinner. De Niro quickly becomes the dad figure most viewers could identify with – warm, kind and realising that he hasn’t always been right, and desperately now wanting to do the right thing. But, having done the shopping and bought the best wine and steak, his children one by one ring him to give their excuses. Everybody is not fine – although Frank’s children do not want him to know really what the main problem is.
He begins the journey of calling upon them one by one and not telling them he is coming. On his way to see David, his artist son in New York, we see him embark on the first of a series of long train and coach journeys – it’s on these journeys that the reality of his life is shared with strangers. We learn that he worked with telephone wires – the bold irony being that communication is his family’s biggest problem. These lines become an essential metaphor throughout the film – conversations are had amongst three of the children about Frank and we learn the real story about David through them. As Frank reflects, the lines are ‘his work’ (his day job while the children were growing up) – he put the PVC coating on them but those closest to him can’t use the connection the lines provide to be honest to him.
David is not at his flat – Frank leaves a note – and catches sight of a striking watercolour by David, in the gallery next door. He proceeds on to Chicago to see his daughter Amy (Kate Beckinsale), ‘high up in advertising’ – only to be greeted by her son Jack: ‘I’m online’. De Niro, this time everybody’s granddad, replies ‘ok, you do your thing’ in the most understanding of ways…don’t we all just take our grandparents for granted and then regret all the lost time with them. He can’t stay long at Amy’s (she has to fly to see David in prison in Mexico of which Frank knows nothing and makes some other excuse).
Frank does not have any deep words with Amy, but his sadness at the station when he leaves is easy to see. De Niro has a super expressive face and is superbly natural emotionally – it’s easy to forget he’s acting. He journeys on to see Robert in Denver (the very convincing Sam Rockwell) whom he believes to be a conductor but in fact learns is ‘only’ a timpanist. Robert hints that dad always expected too much: he saw his children in certain careers and is now struggling to see them as life has turned out. But, the film is too intelligent to lay blame over lack of communication and lost dreams on Frank – he is simply the parent who wanted the very best for his children, felt he never really knew them as they only talked to their mother, and now realises that most of the time things don’t work out as planned. And, Robert sees this and they part (Robert again making excuses as to why he can’t spend time with him) on good terms, with Rockwell looking on conveying all too well the realisation that parents get old and the time you had with them will never come again.
Frank’s final stop is Rosie (Drew Barrymore), a dancer in Las Vegas. On the way, there is what I found, a heartbreaking scene in the subway when Frank gives some money to a seemingly homeless young man only for this to backfire and his medication is stamped on and destroyed. De Niro, by now showing visibly hurt signs of feeling rejection from his children, conveys the vulnerability of age and loneliness. But he is determined and is cheered, temporarily, on arrival in Vegas to see Rosie flourishing in the dancing career she dreamed of, with a lovely apartment…and a mysterious baby who she tells Frank is her friend’s. Barrymore, out of all the children, is the one who most relishes the time with her dad and it is Frank who takes an early exit and must return home to restock on his medication.
One of the most poignant devices in the film is the use of flashback – when Frank sees each of his children for the first time, he first sees them as the children they once were. Then suddenly they are the successful adults they have become but with the baggage this has brought. By the time Frank leaves to go home it is clear that all is not well to him and he doesn’t make it home but instead has a heart attack on the plane and finally, in his hour of need, the children are at his bedside when he wakes, to tell him about David. The news is worse than he could ever have imagined.
The film is not sentimental or over-done in any way – the performances are grounded and real and you feel that this is how it is for many a family. It is De Niro’s film however and he doesn’t make it hard for us to have empathy with him as dad, granddad, widower and man suddenly feeling he has lost touch. The ironies are bold – perhaps too bold some would say – the telephone wires he has been a part of and which now don’t offer comfort or honesty, the fact that his children all work in the creative and ‘communication’ industries but tell him little…but these ironies are used well and make a seemingly light-hearted film very meaningful and all too realistic that it is the younger generation who have lost touch with their older generation, not vice versa.