If you really dig Michael Caine — and there’s no reason you shouldn’t — Is Anybody There? is almost worth seeing for his performance alone. Caine plays a retired magician, Clarence, forced by impending senility to move into a senior citizen’s home on the English countryside, which is essentially the large family house of an 11-year-old boy (Edward) and his mother and father (Anne Marie Duff and David Morrissey), who run the place.
Set in the 1980s, Edward (Bill Milner) is a morose kid obsessed with death, as you’d expect living in a house where someone dies every other week. He’s also had to give up his room to a series of tenants because the family needs the extra scratch they get from renting out his room. Edward keeps mostly to himself, kicking soccer balls up against walls and contemplating the afterlife. He often leaves a running tape recorder underneath the elderly tenants’ beds, hoping — when a tenant dies — his recordings will reveal clues to the great beyond.
When Clarence moves in, Edward gravitates toward him and his magic, but Clarence is a nasty, bitter son of a bitch who prefers to keep to himself and dwell on the death of his wife. Predictably, Clarence eventually warms up to Edward (aha! the “unlikely friendship”), teaches him some magic, and the two of them bring each other out of their respective funks. Edward’s ruminations on the afterlife even provide Clarence some small comfort as his hereafter approaches. Meanwhile, Edward’s father — middle aged — has his own fears of aging, which has put a strain on his marriage. He attempts to pursue a relationship with an 18-year-old assistant, with the expected results.
It’s as predictable a movie as you’re going to see, full of well-worn platitudes and cockneyisms. But it works well enough because Caine is charming even at his most irascible and scruffy — the man can twinkle-eye your heart into a little puddle of mush. Anne Marie Duff (James McAvoy’s wife) is also solid, too; hokey goes down easy behind her endearing smile.
Based loosely on the childhood of scriptwriter Peter Harness (who grew up on a nursing home), Is Anybody There? is a sweet movie about aging, about what you’re leaving behind, and about the mysteries of death. It gets a little too maudlin and heavy-handed at times. Director John Crowley (Boy A) alternates between trying to reign in the script’s sentimentality and giving into it fully, and when he’s not doing either, the movie wanders aimlessly, poking lethargically around the old folks’ home and its eccentric residents.
All in all, Is Anybody There? is charmingly forgettable, a decent afternoon matinee, and one that will exploit weak tear ducts. Unless you’re a Michael Caine completist, however, it’s not a movie that deserves much better than the bottom of your Netflix queue.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. You can email him or leave a comment below