From 1970 to 1990, Robert De Niro was the yardstick by which other actors measured themselves. This godfather raging bull goodfella was the champagne of bottled rage, as one observer nicely put it.

Yet for the last two decades, despite occasional fine work as an actor (Heat, The Score), director (A Bronx Tale, The Good Shepherd), and citizen (the Tribeca Film Festival), De Niro is best known for paycheck performances in swill like Righteous Kill and Analyze That.

So it is with great pleasure that I report that his pensive performance in Everybody's Fine, the Americanization of Giuseppe Tornatore's 1990 family drama Stanno tutti bene, is up there with his best.

Though billed as a fuzzy holiday comedy, Everybody's Fine is a prickly, bittersweet weeper about a father's attempts at reconnection and reconciliation with his four far-flung children. De Niro plays his character completely contained, afraid to brim or overflow with emotion. The more he pulls back, the more he pulls in the audience.

Frank Goode (De Niro), recent retiree and widower, lives alone in his tidy home in Elmira, N.Y. He hopes to fill the void left by his beloved wife with the laughter and bustle of his grown children and grandson over a family reunion weekend. One by one, they call to make their excuses.

If the kids can't come to him, Frank reasons, he will go to them. At first, he can't see them as the adults they are, but rather as the 8- and 10-year-olds they were. It's hard to connect when there's no bond there. The irony in the film's guiding (if overworked) visual metaphor is that Frank, himself not much of a communicator, manufactured the PVC coating for the utility wires that carry the phone calls among his family members. Those fraying, drooping wires represent what is left of the Goode family ties.

The early sequences of the film directed by Kirk Jones (Waking Ned Devine), who also adapted the script, have some drollery, with Frank consulting the supermarket oracles - the butcher, the wine stockboy, the guy selling gas grills - for advice on catering and preparing the family meal.

Now he has to be both mother and father to his kids. But as it transpires, though he was a good provider, Frank wasn't emotionally available to his children. His late wife did the parenting.

Jones structures the movie as a mystery in which Frank must ferret out the secret each son and daughter is concealing. Why isn't his artist son answering the door at his Manhattan studio? Why is his account executive daughter (Kate Beckinsale) so stressed about her husband and son in Chicago? Why did his musician son (the very fine Sam Rockwell) in Denver represent that he was a conductor of the orchestra rather than a percussionist? Why is his dancer daughter in Vegas (an even finer Drew Barrymore) so skittish?

Though Frank has challenges in keeping his family connected, De Niro's minimalist performance has maximum emotional impact and succeeds in unifying the episodic film. I wept. So will you.EndText