Is Anybody There?
A little magic and maturity from Caine
To answer the question put forth by the title of "Is Anybody There?": Michael Caine is there, single-handedly lifting a soggy bit of coming-of-age whimsy into the category of the watchable.
At the age of 76, the British actor - always charming, ever underrated - has moved into codger roles, and this one's frankly a wheeze. Caine plays The Amazing Clarence, a shabby retired magician who washes up at a small senior citizen's home run by a couple (Anne-Marie Duff and David Morrissey) in the southeast of England. They have a young son named Edward (Bill Milner) who has been put out of his room by the retirees and isn't happy about it. Surrounded by decrepitude and death, the boy becomes fixated on the hereafter, and who better to be his spirit guide than a traveling prestidigitator?
Clarence wants none of it: not Edward, nor his fellow duffers, nor even his moth-eaten bag of tricks. He'd rather mourn the wife he mistreated while she was alive and inveigh against cruel fate. "Your life changes and not always for the better," Clarence warns Edward with a jab of his finger. "You accumulate regrets and they stick to you like old bruises." He's a thoroughly nasty man - Alfie at the end of the line - and the most interesting thing in the movie.
As "Is Anybody There?" charts the growing friendship between old man and young boy, though, the film's emotional temperature slowly rises from chilly to tepid. The subject is aging: Edward is curious about it, his middle-aged dad, lusting after the home's young assistant (Linzey Cocker), is terrified by it, and Clarence is sinking beneath its waves. Caine makes a difficult man's struggle to stay afloat touching and specific - and, in one sequence involving a magic trick gone gruesomely wrong, very funny - but everything else about the movie feels hazy.
Writer Peter Harness has based his screenplay on his own childhood experiences, but personal doesn't necessarily translate to fresh. "You've got all these old people around, with all these stories - it's a privilege," Clarence tells Edward even as the movie wastes some of Britain's finest character actors (Sylvia Syms, Rosemary Harris, Peter Vaughan) in underwritten parts. Milner is an appealing blank slate as Edward, but between this and his starring role in the vastly superior "Son of Rambow," the young actor seems stuck in the mid-1980s. The kid has a future; Caine has a past. "Is Anybody There?" isn't much of a present for either of them.