15 April 2009

Is Anybody There?

Directed by: John Crowley
Written by: Peter Harness
Full credits from IMDb

Like the award-losing Benjamin Button, Is Anybody There? is an intermittently poignant movie obsessed with death. And, unlike that Pitt-lead dourfest, it’s intermittently funny, too! Set in an independently run nursing home, a ramshackley mom-and-pop start-up, the movie charts the budding friendship between a young boy (Son of Rambow’s Bill Milner, easily confused with Freddie Highmore), son of the caretakers, and a retired magician (Michael Caine), a new resident. That’s a dangerously contrived set-up treading in perilously manipulative waters, but the the strength of the leads manages to sustain a sweet tone while, most of the time, keeping clear of cloying.

The movie plays out as a study of two disagreeable and frequently unlikable characters—Grumpy Old (and Young) Men—that share a macabre preoccupation with mortality: gloomy gramps is in perpetual mourning for his dead wife; the kid obsesses over the paranormal, trying to record ghosts on tape. (“Why are you so bloody morbid?” the father asks his son. “’Cos I live here!” he answers.) The actors vivify each, particularly Caine, who adds complexity to a tired archetype, the old timer resentful to be placed in a care facility. Unshaven, uncombed and bloodshot, like an Irish sea-captain back from an Odyssean voyage, he seethes and snaps at the kind or aloof people around him. Caine humanizes the crusty fogey: cutting in one moment, he weeps in the next.

Unfortunately, the film doesn’t live up to the performances. Director Crowley, who deftly staged The Pillowman on Broadway, directs Is Anybody There? like a theater man, even though his resume boasts more film credits (e.g. the well-received Boy A). Most glaringly, he has little faith in his images, drowning them in thick and nauseous musical syrup. Script problems drag him down, as well; he muddles through a misguided subplot about the nursing home proprietor—the boy’s father—lusting after the hired help, and the screenplay relies on unconvincingly quick changes of heart, as if a reel were missing.

Still, at the least, Is Anybody There? feels like a fresh take on the kooky old folk routine. Writer Harness grew up in a situation similar to that of our young protagonist, so he and Crowley imbue the movie with seemingly authentic details. For every contrived moment of quirkiness—the post-stroke geezer who can only mutter a single word—there’s a moment of genuine pathos, whether it’s Caine weeping in the mirror as he calls his departed beloved’s name, or an ancillary old woman sobbing in the corner of the frame. That it’s British doesn’t hurt—prick jokes told to priests replace rapping grannies—and it helps, too, that the film boasts a master thespian at the top of his game. If Caine were as sick as his character appears, this would be a worthy performance to go out on, regardless of the iffy material that it supports. Grade: B-

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