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Is Anybody There?
Directed by John Crowley
It may be impossible to mount a great edifice from a wobbly foundation, but John Crowley’s Is Anybody There?
proves it’s possible to construct a moderately sturdy film from a shaky screenplay. Exhausting metaphors for just a moment longer (since Is Anybody There?
similarly indulges in such half-baked conceits): screenwriter Peter Harness lays the groundwork as if creating blueprints for a maudlin production about a troubled young boy and a tortured old man. Thankfully, Crowley and co. compensate for the script’s formulas and flaws with fluid editing, observant cinematography, and proficient direction. Injecting kinetic energy into the messy ensemble of Intermission
and unsettling atmosphere into the moralistic core of Boy A
, Crowley has made a career out of surmounting mediocre material, but Is Anyone There?
certainly does him less favors than his previous projects. Therefore, this one is strictly made for the tea-and-crumpet crowd.
It’s hardly difficult to recognize why this story of an age-spanning friendship is a tempting one to tell — a coming-of-age narrative combined with a coming-to-terms-with age tale serves as a pre-packaged double-whammy celebration of life and death. Young Edward (Bill Milner) is a sullen kid — obsessed with ghosts and trapped within a nursing home — and a cliché of cinematic childhood. Old Clarence (Michael Caine) is a sullen widower and ex-magician — obsessed with the ghosts of past regrets and trapped within the same nursing home — and a cliché of senior-citizen senility. Obviously, they’re both in dire need of a hug and some fulfilling life lessons. The two meet briefly one day when Edward narrowly avoids getting run over by Clarence’s ramshackle van. Clarence pops out, snarling and yelling, gets back in his van, and eventually ends up at the nursing home Edward’s parent’s run. Their relationship continues on this trajectory of ups and downs, “bloody good”s and “bugger off”s, until illusions with playing cards and impromptu expeditions together distract them from the insidious thoughts of death.
The premise, which includes a schlocky subplot of marital distress, reeks of the aging bodies and dried urine of a nursing home, but Caine, Milner and Crowley haven’t taken the piss out of the scenario; the attempt to imbue the project with an acerbic tone is admirable, but still falls short. The film is saved from procedural hell by its sketch of a screenplay, giving the filmmakers room to illuminate these characters with focus on the objects, not the lame backstories, that surround them. Despite the efforts of the sharp-tongued cast and the sharp-minded technical crew, Is Anybody There?
ultimately strands its viewer in its denouement. Is Anybody There?
is postured as a narrative that explores the so-called “surprising mysteries of life” but, like a retired magician’s act, we’ve all seen these tricks before.
Opens April 17