Is Anybody There?

Get Off My Lawn, Freddie Highmore!

Is Anybody There

Starring: Michael Caine, Bill Milner

By Robert Patrick

Director John Crowley’s movie, about an old man having an unexpected friendship with a curious child in 1980s England, is a film that doesn’t shirk its emotional duties. And as good as it is, my worry is that people may attend this movie, kids in tow, to see a sort of whimsical journey about an old badger who gets his icy heart melted by a precocious young boy. Caine’s film contains the basic elements of a buoyant feel good time at the matinee, with an old man coming to terms with his setting sun, and how he teaches a youngster about wisdom. But instead of having poetic nuances, coming of age lessons, and humorous anecdotes being topped with a fluffy dollop of whipped cream, the movie wants to throw a fist of salt at your eyes. The reality of life is that the gravelly murmur of a man dealing with his inevitable demise is rarely charming or cute. Having to live life, virtually alone and without independence over body or mind, in a home for the old is unfathomably difficult to imagine. The smell of urine permeates the air, sets on the yellowed walls, and lingers day after day. The bodies of the residents, practically inanimate from years of arthritis and osteoporosis, look like coat racks whose single goal is to furnish thrift store clothes. I can assure you that there is a lot of sad material that, with all of its thoughtfulness about the fangled path into darkness that some seniors take, makes you think about the timber of mortality. 

Because the movie is an unabridged examination of the elderly, the director could’ve piped up the orchestra, laid the tracks for predetermined sentiments, and let the audience fall into a body of tears. By sometimes showing the ineffable sadness in the lives of older people, you better understand the emotions of these older generations. To be effective in conveying the emotional pitfalls of life, you don’t always need a plump rainbow of chipper maxims to make everything easier to swallow; Crowley, by avoiding this, sidesteps a contrived exploration of old age, and makes something wholly sincere.

Much to his chagrin, Clarence (Michael Caine), a former magician in the twilight of his life, checks himself into an old-age home. The old man’s hair, white and thinning like a patch of melting snow, looks disheveled and forever mussed. Once Clarence steps into the house, he knows his undesirable future. The home, run by a bickering couple whose job is to wrangle up the eccentric elders, is the last place that our somber protagonist wants to be. To make things worse, a young boy named Edward (Bill Milner), the son of the home’s consummately agitated caregivers, initially, upon meeting the former mentalist, bogs him down with negativity. However long this lasts, Edward, who also needs reaffirmation of his worth, begins a marred friendship with the cankerous Clarence. 

Since Clarence has had a checkered past, complete with a broken marriage, he is constantly trying to heave this detrimental baggage from off his back. Edward, who is given only incremental attention by his mother and father, leans on Clarence as a sort of makeshift parental figure. Eventually the odd couple bond, using Clarence’s old profession of magic to bridge the generation gap. The two actors – Caine and Milner – have dynamic chemistry; you never question the legitimacy of their aggravation, or the questions they posit about life. 

Despite my maddening synopsis dealing with incurable sadness, the movie, with the smart dialogue serving as its primary catalyst, pulls off some remarkably biting humor. And though the bolts of humor are interrupted by bouts of inconsolable unhappiness, the movie knows when to change the gears before it becomes exploitive or distracting.

Caine, who doesn’t have an out of body acting experience in this film, still does a better job than most actors could do in his stead. He is good at launching into emotional tirades, or showing the subtle tics of coping with loss. You understand his disappointment, in one look alone, just by him gazing over the worn photographs of his late wife, whose pictures are curled by the wear of time. You feel that Clarence’s past life, no matter how previously glamorous, has since been snuffed out by the boot of old age. 

Watching Caine snarl through plumes of cigarette smoke, doing his best face of disparagement, is frightfully believable.  And when he shuffles his feet, he drags them with the sound of furniture being pulled on a wood floor. The portrait, supplied here by one of cinema’s finest actors, doesn’t ever feel trite or unwelcome. 

Milner’s acting is especially good, despite him reminding me of a more talented version of Freddie Highmore. Milner bounces around, spins, and acts unquestionably invested in his roll as the morbidly curious Edward. The rest of the cast is a snore compared to the two leads, who drive the picture for the duration of the film.

By no means will this film excite people who want to see a car fly through a grocery store, or an explosion eradicate a battleship. The film, instead, is one that you have to work yourself into the mood for. If you liked Peter O’Toole’s Venus, you may find yourself in good company with this particular film. 

The main draw, aside from seeing the endlessly likable Michael Caine, is to witness a film that does well for the older people in this country. And though some of these aforementioned individuals may see their lifelines barely pulsating, they still have more spikes of humor, courage, and wisdom in their bodies than most people do – and what else do you need in this world, really?


Author: Rob Patrick

The program director of the Olympia Film Society, Rob is also a former San Diego Film Critics Society member. He has written for The East County Californian, The Alpine Sun, The East County Herald, The San Diego Entertainer, and the San Diego Reader. When he isn't curating a film festival, he is drinking rosé out of a plastic cup in Seattle or getting tattoos from Jenn Champion.

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