TOLSTOY WAS RIGHT: Reviews of The Misfortunates and Everybody’s Fine

Leo Tolstoy once wrote “all happy families are happy in the same way, all unhappy families are unhappy in a different way”. Two films that have come out this year do seem to support that idea.

The Misfortunates is the Belgian entry in the foreign film Oscar category. It’s one of those films where one doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry half the time. It revolves around the character of Kleine, seen at both age 13 and about 15 years later when he’s still trying to make sure his childhood doesn’t destroy his adulthood. As a teen, Kleine lived at his long suffering grandmother’s house along with his father and three uncles, four of the most reprobatish reprobates one will ever see outside of Dickens. They all drink too much; their vulgarity knows no bounds; and they treat women as little more than people to have sex with (the movie is a touch misogynistic at times, not just from the character’s point of view, but also in the script by Christophe Dirickx and director Felix Van Groeningen). They also sometimes work. Sometimes. In the beginning, the movie feels as if it’s going to be one of those stories with the moral that just because a family isn’t normal, that doesn’t mean it’s a bad background in which to bring up a child. And there is something life affirming at first in the way these men seem to just enjoy being alive for its own sake. But as the father and uncle’s escapades increase (his brothers have no problem bringing home their dates and having sex while they think Kleine is sleeping; they get in fights at bars; they go on a rampage and destroy a TV when a debt collector tries to explain the direness of their grandmother’s situation; the father threatens Kleine with a knife while undergoing the DT’s), Kleine begins to feel the pressure of how oppressive this sort of upbringing is. Kleine’s a bright kid with a talent for writing and the ability to do well enough at school, but his environment is closing in on him fast. He’s saved when a social worker comes by and he ends up boarding at his school, only visiting home on weekends. In addition, his father goes into rehab, one uncle goes to prison and the other two also leave the house, finally giving Kleine the peace he needs to grow. As an adult, he makes the same mistake his father made and gets a woman pregnant. He is saved by a company wanting to publish his memoirs, relieving him of having to choose between family and his dreams. The chaotic feeling to the directing and camera work adds to the general chaotic feeling of Kleine’s life. Though not as harrowing as Precious, it has many of the same themes and is well worth seeing.

Everybody’s Fine is perfectly fine, but I’m not sure much more can be said of it than that. It’s slick and intelligent and it does everything correctly, but it never really connects emotionally. Part of this is probably because the central conflicts and reasons for the dysfunction of the central characters are based on years of events preceding the start of the movie, all of which are talked about, but never really shown. So one spends much of one’s time in the audience trying to put it all together rather than being invested in what is going on. Robert de Niro plays the only man in America who doesn’t have a computer or cell phone and doesn’t fly; not particularly convincing, but very convenient for the authors (the screenplay is by Kirk Jones, who also directed). De Niro’s character has pressured his children into being high achievers (what’s very odd here is that de Niro plays the patriarch of an upper middle class family; but instead of pushing his children to become doctors and lawyers, he pushes them all to become artists, dancers and symphony conductors—only the daughter who becomes an ad agency executive seems to go into a line of work most American hard assed fathers would consider worthy). But the children never got as far as the father would like. The conceit here is that the father never knew it because his wife always kept the bad news from him and made him think things were better than they were. Once the wife dies, there is no longer a firewall between fiction and reality and though the children try to keep up the charade, the curtains get torn asunder. The movie in a way starts out a bit confusingly. De Niro has invited his children to a weekend barbeque, but none show up. At first it seemed it was because they didn’t have time for the father and don’t love him. Then suddenly it turns out it’s because they are trying to hide something from him, i.e. they care for him very much. This false start doesn’t help keeping one involved emotionally either. It’s based on an Italian film; perhaps something got lost in the translation.

So tell me what you think.

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