Magnolia Pictures // 2009 // 94 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // November 27th, 2009
Magic is possible when life is lived to its fullest.
"I don't do card tricks. Well, maybe one or two."
Edward (Bill Milner, Son of Rambow) is an unusual child who leads an unusual life. He lives in an assisted living facility in England run by his mother (Anne-Marie Duff, Notes on a Scandal) and father (David Morrissey, The Other Boleyn Girl). Edward has a particular fascination with ghosts and the afterlife. Whenever a resident passes away, Edward grabs his tape player and scrambles into their room in the hopes of recording some sort of supernatural activity. Alas, thus far he hasn't really been able to capture much of anything. He's still convinced that ghosts are real; he just can't prove it.
One day, a new resident named Clarence (Michael Caine, The Dark Knight) moves in. Clarence is a retired magician, actually quite a popular entertainer many years ago. Now Clarence is alone and forgotten, with no one who remembers or cares about him. Edward finds this old man immensely curious, and attempts to strike up a relationship with him. Initially, the old man responds with hostility. "Bugger off," he generally says. But as time passes, Clarence and Edward become friends. While Edward is desperately curious about what awaits him in the afterlife, Clarence is desperate to find redemption for all the mistakes he has made here on earth. Together, these two might just be able to help each other find some answers.
To be perfectly honest, Is Anybody There? isn't an exceptionally good film. Oh, to be sure, it has an excellent lead performance from Michael Caine, not to mention a very big heart, but the truth is that there isn't a single moment that we haven't seen before. Everything feels recycled and too familiar, from the prickly-then-sweet relationship between the grumpy old man and the precocious young kid to the sentimental third-act moments in which old secrets are revealed to the strains of tender piano music. Truthfully, it's sort of like a restrained, "grown-up" version of Pixar's Up, but it lacks the profoundly moving and original qualities of that film. Up took familiar conventions and made them feel breathtakingly fresh, Is Anybody There? just reminds us that they're old, worn-out clichés.
Much of the film is spent all-too-obviously creating seemingly self-contained little moments that will later reveal themselves to be part of a sentimental subplot. There are simply too many scenes in the film that feel like nothing more than a set-up for another (probably less interesting) scene to come. For instance, there is a moment when Edward is mean to an old resident of the assisted living facility. The old man wants to play soccer. "No!" Edward shouts. "Just give me my ball!" He grabs his soccer ball and storms off. Dear reader, what would you like to bet that Edward will decide to play soccer with that very man later in the film as a result of the lessons he's learned from his relationship with Clarence? If you just rolled your eyes, this probably isn't the movie for you, because the same level of predictable sentiment is applied liberally throughout the screenplay.
The subplots spread throughout the film tend to be thin and uninteresting. Mom and Dad are having marital problems, which grow progressively worse throughout the film and come to a head towards the conclusion, but the material never manages to become half as interesting or revealing as it ought to be. It feels more like filler than anything else. That same criticism applies to anything regarding the lives of the elderly residents, as none of them (other than Clarence, of course) are given enough time to make an impact or suggest that they are more than a series of unmemorable tics. I hate seeing fine actors like Rosemary Harris and Leslie Phillips wasted as little more than background props, but that's exactly what happens.
The relationship between Edward and Clarence certainly has its share of fun moments, but the journey is punctuated by tragedies that are dealt with in the most mawkishly obvious manner. Clarence is lonely...and bitter because his wife left him some years ago...and he's going senile...and he's going to die soon. Clarence is not particularly different from the other elderly residents who are slowly coming to the end of their lives, but for some reason his existence dramatically transforms the lives of those around him. It's a bit difficult to buy a, "Things would never be the same after Clarence arrived," story when the main characters have been spending their lives around people very much like Clarence for some time. I honestly hate writing that, because this is a good-hearted story and the fact that I dislike it probably makes me seem like a cold reptile. Truthfully, I was touched by Is Anybody There?, but more by the noble intentions of those making it than by what actually appears on the screen.
The Blu-ray transfer is quite stellar, capturing this soothing, muted film with clarity and warmth. The cinematography and imagery has a slightly faded, worn quality about it that suits the picture nicely. Flesh tones are accurate, facial detail is quite strong, and background detail is satisfactory. There are quite a few intentionally soft shots throughout the film, but when it wants to look sharp, it does. My only issue is with some of the darker scenes, where shading isn't as strong as I would have preferred and everything tends to run together. The audio is very quiet and very subtle, but one has to appreciate the strong sound design work done on the film. There are a lot of minor details that are very easy to miss but which add immensely to the immersiveness of the track. A few dialogue bits are a little tough to make out, but it's nothing to complain about. I will confess to disliking Joby Talbot's score (he's generally a good composer; I particularly liked his work on The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy), which spends half its time accentuating how cute everything is and the other half making peculiar use of the ondes martenot. The only extra on the disc? A 7-minute batch of deleted scenes. How crummy.
It's a real shame the film isn't better than it is, because it contains a Michael Caine performance that deserves much better. It's almost unnerving in a way, because it's the first time that I've seen Caine seem so...well, old. Clarence is frail, weak, and suffering from the effects of senility, and the actor is frighteningly convincing in the role. Caine has some very affecting scenes, and even when the screenplay slips into over-the-top sentiment, Caine keeps his character believable and real. There's a genuinely beautiful moment between Clarence and Edward's mother towards the end of the film that I really loved; an example of what the film could have been. Ah, well.
Caine fans such as myself will undoubtedly want to give this disc a rent to see the actor's fine work, but all others need not bother. Is Anybody There? is largely a bland, conventional picture that only occasionally becomes something exceptional.
Review content copyright © 2009 Clark Douglas; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 94 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Deleted Scenes