Film Review: Is Anybody There?

Alternating between the saturnine and the saccharin, <i>Is Anybody There?</i> brings sweetness and light to a depressing subject.

Two reasons to watch this small film about the unlikely friendship between an oddball boy and a crotchety old codger: the performances by talented young Bill Milner (reprising the kind of role that won him accolades in Son of Rambow) and the ever-beguiling Michael Caine. The gallows humor of screenwriter Peter Harness and director John Crowley, who approach the anxious subjects of dementia and death with wry compassion, provides both actors unique opportunity to embroider a formulaic script with (pun intended) character.

In Is Anybody There?, Milner plays 10-year-old Edward, only child of a couple who have turned their sprawling and slightly dilapidated house into a retirement home. A shy boy with an understandable (given his situation) interest in the paranormal, Edward lurks about the feeblest guests, sometimes hiding a tape recorder under their beds to record whatever sounds accompany a soul’s ascent into the afterlife.

Enter Caine, or rather, the Amazing Clarence, penurious widower and retired magician in need of room and board. Despite an initial antipathy toward each other, a bit of stage business to establish Clarence as world-class curmudgeon and Edward as mischievous loner, he and the boy become fellow travelers. Clarence teaches his adopted protégé lessons about life along with elementary card tricks; Edward lifts Clarence out of a lachrymose longing for his dead wife, an obsession that eventually reveals itself to be equal parts remorse, guilt and heartache.

Meanwhile, back at the retirement home, Edward’s dad (David Morrissey) is hot for housekeeper (Linzey Cocker), while his wife (Anne-Marie Duff) struggles valiantly to care for her doddering clientele, a predictably eccentric lot (enlivened by veterans Rosemary Harris and Leslie Philips) who offer comic relief from patent set-pieces to patiently developed gags, one of which follows hard upon the film’s pivotal moment, a magic trick gone horribly awry.

The botched illusion reveals Clarence’s secret, that he is, to quote King Lear, no longer in his perfect mind. Is Anybody There? manages to convey this shock of recognition along with the re-evaluation that accompanies it—the old man’s erratic behavior, his diminishing motor skills (the film inadvertently puns on this aspect of his decline), his steady regression into a distant past, now form an all-too-clear pattern. Caine does a superb job conveying Clarence’s subtle, then sudden, slide into senility, aided by his youthful co-star’s innocent fascination with morbidity and the spirit world. The film is sappy but affecting, and though in the end it’s a modest little movie, Is Anybody There? is well-crafted, thoughtful and sentimental in the best sense.