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Is Anybody There?
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by Erik Childress

"Besides Michael Caine? Not Really."
2 stars

One of the few interesting concepts of expanding the universe of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Benjamin Button was to set his aging problem in the middle of an old folk’s home where he would live out his youth. Of course, Forrest Gump’s mama also took in borders (one of whom – Elvis – would go on to die young) so it was just one of several non-stretches for screenwriter Eric Roth. Instead of having a serious exploration on growing old in an environment that thrives on it, Button ended up using it more as a not-so-subtle gimmick that added nothing but a background visual. Like movie audiences, the elderly deserve not to be treated like children subjected to Lloyd Dobler’s prejudices. Is Anybody There starts with some potential and almost follows through on the strength of Michael Caine’s performance, but mostly ages us through its sloggy, spoon-fed narrative that has us, like its surrounding characters just waiting for it all to be over.

Young Edward (Son of Rambow’s Bill Milner), like Benjamin Button, is residing in an old folk’s home. Growing up there would be one thing, but it used to be just a residence. Edward’s residence. But Mum (Anne-Marie Duff) and Dad (David Morrissey) have converted it to care for the elderly, even if all dad seems to care about is the 18 year-old nurse in their employment. Edward has become fascinated with death beyond just the promise that a new bedroom may have opened up for him. Using a tape recorder to capture the home’s final breaths, Edward hopes to find some evidence of an after life since anything must be better than the lot he’s in now with few friends at school and a bunch of old kooks taking up his space.

That’s when new resident Clarence (Michael Caine) shows up. Excuse me, the Amazing Clarence. He’s a former magician that has been put in the home reluctantly. Which means a lot of surly grump coming from the guy that wants to be left alone so he can reminisce about his dead wife. The initial frost between old man and young boy thaws soon enough and then its magic time. Not just the usual slight-of-hand tricks, which Clarence teaches the boy, but seances that Edward conducts in hopes of talking to the dead and finding a few answers. Clarence, who is quickly losing his own faculties from eyesight to memory, knows Edward’s practices are a false magic but can’t withhold hope that the love of his life is somewhere on the other side of a mirror or elsewhere waiting for him.

It’s all a premise that should be simple enough to coax a few thoughts or a few tears from our head but director John Crowley (Intermission, Boy A) makes it very difficult for us to make a connection. He’s provided very little but a suitable outline by screenwriter Peter Harness who presents the dots of the elderly, death, youth and magical forces but the lines never go through them in a way that would challenge even your first year Sunday School students. The subplot involving Edward’s dad (constantly changing his appearance) lusting after the nurse is sporadically brought in to break up the two-man Clarence & Edward show and never flourishes into a midlife crisis with some real poignancy. It’s just a goofball sideshow about a 39 year-old man hoping to literally grab a little piece of youth. Between that and the occasional Clarence health episode there’s never a moment with the boy approaching the simplistic depth of Wilford Brimley’s goodbye to his grandson in Cocoon.

Scatman Crothers in the Twilight Zone movie Caine is not. But he is still Michael Caine and he’s giving his all even when the screenplay isn’t exactly giving back. This is more than just a grizzled, foul-mouthed horndog performance as is usually the sort of role provided to twilighting Oscar nominees. Caine projects truth in his loss, hurt in his rejection and having been left behind, and honesty through a lot of the film’s false steps. While not exactly a warm and cuddly film, if you want a real film that has some real insight into the parallels between magic and our beliefs in the afterlife seek out Caine’s other superior foray into this territory, Christopher Nolan’s masterful The Prestige. Is Anybody There isn’t deep enough for the athiests or elemental enough for parishoners who may have more faith in the material than the filmmakers do. But when the most heartrending moment comes as we watch a scene from Back to the Future, the nearly 25 years that have passed since that masterpiece is the only thing that will have us pondering where all the time has gone.

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originally posted: 04/17/09 14:00:00
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 Philadelphia Film Festival For more in the 2009 Philadelphia Film Festival series, click here.

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  17-Apr-2009 (PG-13)
  DVD: 17-Nov-2009


  DVD: 17-Nov-2009

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