Following Bob Dylan's Christmas album in the gallery of dubious yuletide entertainment comes Robert De Niro's Christmas movie. When we meet De Niro, a solitary guy vacuuming his generic suburban ranch house, we think: witness relocation program. In a minute we'll see a flashback to his career as a bank robber, the heist where it all went bad, a Fred Thompson cameo as the gruff FBI chief who packs him off to Palookaville, maybe a comic montage of Bobby's arguments with the paperboy and the school crossing guard.
Only, no. They're playing this one straight. Painfully straight. The soundtrack over De Niro's housekeeping scene is "Catch a Falling Star," and a sense of requiem for a heavyweight reverberates throughout this holiday-themed reconciliation saga. Soon the echoes of the larky, charming Perry Como song are drowned by the gears of a formulaic plot clicking into place.
De Niro plays a retired widower prepping his empty house for a homecoming. His grown kids are scattered nationwide. Kate Beckinsale is a married ad agency chief in Chicago, Drew Barrymore works at a Vegas casino, Sam Rockwell's a classical musician in Denver. For reasons you will predict if you've ever seen a crumbling-but-coping family holiday movie, the reunion misfires, so De Niro travels the country to drop in on each of his children unannounced. In what universe could these surprise visits happen? Why, in the same fantasy dimension where De Niro's doctor sternly warns him against plane travel and gives him a skimpy supply of anti-death pills.
Writer/director Kirk Jones, who displayed a feel for broad, naive comedy in "Nanny McPhee" and "Waking Ned Devine," is adrift here. He has no grasp of the subtler emotional shadings needed to elevate a stereotypical Christmas flick. Instead he pours on the syrup thick. Jones clumsily establishes that De Niro's trade was producing telephone wires. And yet he can't communicate with his kids, see? The film includes so many shots of phone poles you'd think it was an AT&T documentary.
On his cross-country tour De Niro doesn't tread much new ground. The film's look at family secrets and lies is familiar stuff. Beckinsale's brittle, high-powered exec lives in the kind of modernist mansion that screams "Unhappy! Unfulfilled!" Barrymore, so delicious in the underappreciated roller derby romp "Whip It," does her misty-eyed sweetness routine as an aging little girl lost.
Only Rockwell supplies much spark as an orchestra musician who didn't fulfill his dad's expectations. Rockwell is spiky enough to be De Niro's kin, bringing an undercurrent of angst and bitterness to his role. Perhaps that's why the sight of him wearing a Santa hat is so disconcerting. The other siblings could only have arrived in this flabbergasting family unit via an adoption agency with a taste for practical jokes.
As for De Niro, Jones' script requires him to perform with a sanitized, uninflected sweetness utterly at odds with his edgy, electrical power. This out-of-character role isn't a stretch for the finest American actor of his generation. It's a four-eggnog snooze.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186