Got a minute? That’s about all you’ll need to forecast the kind of film Is Anybody There? is trying to be. Director John Crowley opens with a Christmas dinner scene: Assembled around a table creaking under fruitcake and figgy pudding is a group of elderly people sporting tissue-paper hats. Some are happy; a few barely know what’s going on. A young boy is there as well, announcing that he doesn’t believe in Father Christmas and looking miserable as a drunk old coot tells him a dirty limerick. Shortly thereafter, another resident of this ramshackle English retirement home dies. His bagged body is brought down on a stair lift, sat upright.
You’ll either find these things hilarious or excruciating. If the latter, get ready for an extremely long 90-odd minutes.
Michael Caine is the star of this tonal mess, set in 1987 and featuring the new go-to kid for ’80s movies, Son of Rambow’s Bill Milner. Caine’s participation is perplexing until you discover that he had personal reasons for accepting the part of a former magician struggling with Alzheimer’s: A friend of his had recently died from the disease, and the script by freshman writer Peter Harness reportedly made Caine weep. Harness’ story is undeniably wrenching. The problem is that the film jerks tears with all the nuance of an onion and asks you to laugh at these codgers first.
Edward (Milner) and Clarence (Caine) meet cute when the illusionist nearly runs Edward over with his van. (What is it with vans and dramedy? See: Little Miss Sunshine; Sunshine Cleaning.) Both characters are perpetually pissed. Edward hates living in the retirement home that his parents (Anne-Marie Duff and David Morrissey) run, especially since they made him give up his bedroom. He’s suspicious of Mum’s claim that living among so many seniors is a blessing, but it does help feed his obsession with the afterlife as he uses a tape recorder to surveil the bedrooms of any residents who are near death.
The onetime Amazing Clarence, meanwhile, is on is way to check into the home when he first meets Edward, who rubs him the wrong way. When Clarence tries to leave almost immediately after he arrives—asserting that he’s lived on his own his entire adult life and isn’t about to live under someone else’s watch now—Edward’s mother takes Clarence’s hand and pleads, “Just give it a go.” Both the character and the actor should have run.
Naturally, Edward and Clarence fight, fight, fight—until they don’t anymore, and then become best friends. Their head-butting involves a lot of pouting and “bugger off!”s; when Clarence decides to be nice to the kid after Edward interrupts his suicide attempt, he offers the 10-year-old a cigarette in the hospital. Priceless! But then Clarence’s dementia starts to worsen, and the film takes a whiplash turn into bathos as we learn about his ex-wife, now dead, whom he treated badly and never had the chance to apologize to.
Crowley, who directed 2003’s terrific Intermission and last year’s more uneven Boy A, can’t take the whole of the blame for a script whose attempts at humor include a drunk old man using words like “stiffy.” He does, however, amplify the condescension Harness obviously harbors toward his characters in a couple of agonizing scenes: A musician, in one instance, tries to entertain the residents with a “Wheels on the Bus” sing-along. In another, a quiet man suffering from severe tremors is forced to take part in one of Clarence’s shows despite wince-inducing protests. He’s completely stripped of his dignity—as well as a fingertip in a trick gone wrong.
The broad sins of Is Anybody There? eclipse its few kernels of genuine emotion. A subplot of tension between Edward’s parents, his father buckling from the stress of their lifestyle, is bobbled, though not as egregiously as the film’s night-and-day treatment of old age. When Clarence finally wanders down a dark, involuntary road, Caine is heartbreaking in as delicate a manner as could be achieved under the circumstances. You may cry for him, though it will likely be in between glances at your watch.