Is Anybody There? (2008)


(director: John Crowley; screenwriter: Peter Harness; cinematographer: Rob Hardy; editor: Trevor Waite; music: Joby Talbot; cast: Michael Caine (Clarence), Anne-Marie Duff (Mum), David Morrissey (Dad), Rosemary Harris (Elsie), Elizabeth Spriggs (Prudence), Bill Milner (Edward), Peter Vaughan (Bob), Linzey Cocker (Tanya), Sylvia Syms (Lilian), Leslie Phillips (Reg); Runtime: 95; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producers: David Heyman/Peter Saraf/Mark Turtletaub; Story Island Entertainment; 2008-UK/USA)

“I don’t have any significant complaints about the film, but if I didn’t see it I don’t think I would have missed anything special.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

John Crowley (“Intermission”/”Boy A “) cutely directs this British indie coming-of-age tale that’s set in an old age home, in 1987, and features a quirky tender relationship between a retired crotchety magician who has given up on life and a wide-eyed youngster prone to having temper tantrums who is bright and curious about death, ghosts and the supernatural. It covers familiar territory but is well-acted by the ensemble cast, especially by the 76-year-old Michael Caine, and offers a humanitarian look at growing up, growing old and getting ready to die. The problem was that Peter Harness’s (who actually grew up in a retirement home) slight screenplay takes place in a morose setting and its idea of pouty-mouth humor from the mouths of the elderly never did much to lift my spirits or did their tale tell me what I didn’t already know about aging or make me forget that the contrived dramatics were so tepid that the film seemed overlong even if it was only a respectable 95 minutes in length. I don’t have any significant complaints about the film, but if I didn’t see it I don’t think I would have missed anything special. It was never clear to me why this small film was made, unless one can be satisfied with watching Caine in his senior years acting old and doing a solid job of it (which, come to think of it, might be a good enough reason).

Ten-year-old Edward (Bill Milner, who is a 14-year-old) lives with his hard working Mum (Anne-Marie Duff) and his flirtatious handyman 39-year-old Dad (David Morrissey), who for the last year to avoid financial ruin have turned their country house, Lark Hall, into an old age home in their English seaside town and have made the frustrated Edward give up his big room to accommodate their elderly guests. Dad is going through a mid-life crisis and is awkwardly coming on to an uninterested self-centered 18-year-old worker (Linzey Cocker) at the home. Mom is trying her best to remain calm and collected, watching hubby make a fool of himself. With the death of the latest to occupy the kid’s room, the replacement sent by Social Services is the cranky and depressed ex-magician Clarence Parkinson (Michael Caine). He arrives in a caravan, with the painted outside lettering on the vehicle saying “The Amazing Clarence,” and openly shows a displeasure to live in the home and no longer hitting the countryside with his traveling act.

Edward sulks because his parents are too busy to give him their full attention and Clarence sulks because he has lost his will to live and believe anymore in his magic with the passing of his wife, who assisted him in his act. The two opposites start out unable to make a connection, but before you can say Presto! the clever child shows the old fart how to believe in magic again and the two become inseparable–even as the Caine character shows signs of senile dementia and starts to go in and out of reality.

The film is filled with plenty of salty banter and low-key humor to lighten its morbidity. When the Caine character comes out of his shell to turn the kid away from his ghoulish pursuit of death into exhibiting more socially acceptable behavior by performing some of Clarence’s magical tricks, the film lazily tries to capture that same magic on film but instead just makes it seem like another one of those stale magic tricks that the old-timer passes onto the kid that any two-bit magician could do.