Robert De Niro and I had a good little cry together the other day, which came as a bit of a shock. He’s not the kind of guy you’d expect it from. Neither am I. But I should have seen it coming. The occasion was a screening of De Niro’s new movie, Everybody’s Fine, a Hollywood remake of Stanno tutti bene (1990), starring Marcello Mastroianni. De Niro plays a retired blue-collar worker who lives alone and tries to reunite with his grown children eight months after his wife’s death. They fail to show up for a holiday dinner, so he sets off on an impromptu train trip to surprise them, visiting each in turn. But he is the one who’s in for a surprise. Turns out everybody is not fine. I saw the film at a press screening with a gang of jaded critics, and you could hear them sniffling in the dark. Which is a rare thing.
Actors like to say that tragedy is easy and comedy is hard. But from where I sit, it’s often the other way around. As a critic, it’s dead easy to figure out if comedy works because it triggers a physical response. When a movie makes you laugh out loud, you can’t really turn around and claim it’s not funny. Even thrillers have a visceral impact, as your stomach clenches or a chill runs down your spine. But the impact of tragedy isn’t always so tangible. I don’t know about you, but at the movies, as in life, I find it much easier to laugh than cry. It’s not that I remain emotionally aloof. I can be deeply moved by grand tragedy—pictures like Schindler’s List, Titanic and The English Patient—but hardly ever weep when I’m supposed to. Then I’ll be watching some dumb romantic comedy, stubbornly resisting the formula, only to be ambushed by tears when the guy finally declares his love for the girl after chasing her down in an airport or train station. What’s up with that?
Well, I have a theory or two. In a theatre, laughter is public and, unless you’re bawling like a baby, crying is private. The cinema is just about the only place I can cry—it’s safe, dark and cheaper than therapy. Even so, the conditions have to be perfect. Surprise is key: the tears have to sneak up on me. That’s why banal romantic comedies work. As I become disengaged and start to daydream, my emotional defences drop. Take The Proposal. After I’d become convinced the movie was dreck, in the final act, like clockwork, my eyes moistened as Ryan Reynolds and Sandra Bullock made good on their marriage of convenience. But my heart was really going out to the actors, who rose above the cliché of their own typecasting to generate genuine chemistry.
Movies engineered to draw tears, such as terminal illness dramas, usually leave me dry-eyed. (Denys Arcand’s The Barbarian Invasions was an exception, but it had an extra kink of euthanasia, and the sadness came from an unsentimental place.) Dying animals don’t cut it either, even if they’re euthanized. I loved Marley & Me, but as the dog’s eye slowly closed and Owen Wilson said, “remember you’re a great dog,” I found my mind wandering to Wilson’s suicide attempt.
Maybe that’s because I’ve never owned a dog. Movies that push the pathos button tend to serve as a blank template, a trigger for your own experience. Take Julie & Julia, that rich comic soufflé starring Meryl Streep as Julia Child and Amy Adams as her acolyte. For me, it wasn’t about cooking, but about writing—the payoff scenes that brought tears to my eyes showed the women scoring book deals. It was like a sports movie for writers.
So why did I get choked up by Everybody’s Fine? A couple of reasons. It breaks your heart to see the indomitable De Niro playing a powerless old man. (Sad old guys get to me—like Frank Langella’s writer in Starting Out in the Evening.) Also, the De Niro film is a father-son tragedy. Everyone has a soft spot, and that’s mine. I’m a sucker for movies about the death or absence of a father, or a son. Into the Wild made me weep. So did that ghostly game of catch in Field of Dreams.
So-called “weepies” (a term coined in the ’30s) have traditionally been women’s pictures. But lately it seems an increasing number of tear-jerkers feature tough guys getting sensitive. This fall Clive Owen turned to mush as a widower scrambling to raise two sons in The Boys Are Back. Viggo Mortensen plays another desperate widower in The Road, the harrowing tale of a father and son trying to survive an apocalypse. Even George Clooney lets down his guard as an insouciant bachelor who discovers his inner lonely boy in Up in the Air. That one hit me out of the blue. When you find yourself crying with Clooney, Hollywood’s Mr. Cool, it feels downright weird.