New review: Is Anybody There?

Is Anybody There? (dir: John Crowley)

Michael Caine plays a crotchety old magician, the one-time “The Amazing Clarence,” as his rickety caravan and home-on-wheels advertises. After his latest caravan wreck, he’s pressured into moving to a home for the elderly. “It’s only temporary,” he insists as he’s literally pushed through the door.

Bill Milner’s (Son of Rambow) Edward is a young boy suffering the indignities of having the family home turned into a home for the elderly run by his parents (mostly his mum). The closest thing to an upside in this equation: the opportunity to indulge in his obsession with ghosts and spirits. He hides tape recorders under the beds of the ill and dying, hoping to capture some evidence of the spirits passing on.

Michael Caine and Bill Milner
Michael Caine and Bill Milner

“Why are you so bloody morbid?” asks an exasperated Clarence. “Because I live here!” he answers. The boy has a point. The place takes its toll on Clarence, too. Seeing his dignity slip away rapidly, he tries to speed his own demise. No coincidence that Eddie takes a personal interest in the curmudgeonly old man, whose growling insults slowly give way to tolerance and finally affection.

The friendship between eccentric boy and bitter elder is the film, of course, and while Caine settles into a grandfatherly concern without quite losing that edge of anger and restlessness, it’s an awfully familiar story with little new to say.

This is classic British working-class culture, circa 1987, in which a dry sense of whimsy overlays a general feeling of malaise and disappointment. And it’s not just limited to the regret that hangs over Clarence or the helplessness and hopelessness of his fellow boarders, all resigned to waiting out their final days sitting around the TV and mumbling through childish singsongs. While Eddie’s mum (Anne-Marie Duff) puts everything into the home, his dad (David Morrissey) spends more trying to impress teenage girl they’ve hired than offering his wife any support. Living in such a glum patina of dreary skies and gloomy interiors, it’s no surprise they’re all so disenchanted.

The film doesn’t sugarcoat the senility that creeps up on Clarence, which Caine plays with a state of confusion and helplessness that can be terrifying, but by the end of the film it becomes a healing kind of mourning and a new start for our fractured family. As if we expected anything different from it all.

This is also my debut film review for the new online newspaper the Seattle PostGlobe here.

Directed by John Crowley; screenplay by Peter Harness; featuring Michael Caine, Bill Milner, Anne-Marie Duff, David Morrissey, Rosemary Harris, Leslie Phillips, Sylvia Syms, Peter Vaughan

Author: seanax

I write the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website (www.streamondemandathome.com). I'm a contributing writer for Turner Classic Movies Online, Keyframe, Independent Lens, and Cinephiled, and the editor of Parallax View (www.parallax-view.org).. I've written for The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Seattle Weekly, GreenCine.com, Senses of Cinema, Asian Cult Cinema, and Psychotronic Video, among other publications, and I am a contributing editor to Parallax View. I currently live and work in Seattle, Washington, with my two cats, Hammet and Chandler.

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