What we have here is a three-and-a-half-star movie boosted into the realm of four-and-a-half stars on the strength of one person: Michael Caine. The direction of Is Anybody There? by John Crowley is more utilitarian than inspired. TV writer Peter Harness’ screenplay feels exactly like it was written by a TV writer. Character “types” are used instead of characters. (Because they’re good types, they at least sort of work.) Points are raised and just as quickly forgotten in a fairly sloppy manner. The payoff is predictable—as are most of the developments leading to it. And yet the film ultimately works simply because of Caine’s performance.
The story is no great shakes. It’s a fairly ordinary old-man/young-boy drama. Edward (Bill Milner, Son of Rambow) is a boy living with his parents (Anne-Marie Duff and David Morrissey) in a house that’s been turned into an old-folks home. The boy hardly finds this a wholly pleasant environment—especially since he keeps losing his room to various boarders. Additionally, being surrounded by the aged and their impending deaths makes him preoccupied with the topic—to a point where he’s taken to hiding a cassette recorder under the beds of the dying in the hopes of hearing their souls leave their bodies.
Into this setting comes the Amazing Clarence (Caine), a traveling magician who has spent his life touring the provinces with his act, and now is reduced to driving a beat-up van advertising his act. He bristles at the very idea of being consigned to a nursing home. If anything, Clarence is less delighted than Edward by the prospect of being surrounded by the slightly-to-completely dotty residents of the place—not in the least because Clarence knows that he won’t ever be leaving this engagement.
Despite the expected antipathy between Edward and the aging magician, it’s only a matter of time before the two find solace in each other’s company. After all, there’s simply no one else for either of them to talk to. What Clarence doesn’t reveal—or admit to himself—is that he’s slipping into a state of senile dementia. He knows—or suspects—that admitting to this fact will mark the beginning of the end. Of course, denial will only carry him so far, and that—along with his growing relationship with Edward—is the crux of the story.
The ending is predestined by the material. What isn’t so obvious lies, to some degree, in the undeniable chemistry between Caine and Milner. While everything else in the film—even the occasional streaks of surprisingly black humor—feel at least slightly manufactured, their teaming seems perfectly natural. They don’t appear to be acting out parts written for them, but rather they seem to exist.
The real magic, however, lies in Caine’s performance. There’s not a wrong move, a false emotion or the slightest hint he’s anyone other than the Amazing Clarence. Yes, he is recognizably Michael Caine the movie star, and he does nothing of the kind that usually gets a star lauded, which is to say this isn’t some major departure (think Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt (2002)). Clarence is not unusual for Caine. The role might almost be described as a typical Michael Caine role for this time of his life. That he brings Clarence completely and unquestionably to life is the wonder of it. And it’s also the main reason to see this film—and it’s reason enough. Rated PG-13 for language, including sexual references and some disturbing images.