Is Anybody There?

Is Anybody There? is the kind of life-affirming comedy that American filmmakers such as Frank Capra used to do in the 1930s, and which somehow got lost in our cultural ethos with the coming and passing of the 1960s. Fortunately, in England it's still possible to make relatively small-scale, actor-oriented theatrical film releases such as this (though one...read more

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Reviewed by Bruce Eder
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Is Anybody There? is the kind of life-affirming comedy that American filmmakers such as Frank Capra used to do in the 1930s, and which somehow got lost in our cultural ethos with the coming and passing of the 1960s. Fortunately, in England it's still possible to make relatively small-scale, actor-oriented theatrical film releases such as this (though one gets the feeling it wouldn't be getting half as much attention as it is receiving -- and deserves -- were it not for the presence of Michael Caine in one of the film's two central roles). It's a movie that confronts age and the aging process in often ironic terms, and doesn't really celebrate youth, as much as it does the process of having once been young. Set in 1987 at Lark Hall, an old-age home by the English seaside, it tells the tale of two mismatched friends, ten-year-old Edward (Bill Milner) and eightysomething Clarence Parkinson (Michael Caine), a former stage magician once known as "The Great Clarence." Having lived for a year (an eternity at ten) in the old-age home run by his beleaguered parents, Edward's already seemingly morbidly inclined personality has turned toward the occult and a search for evidence of ghosts and spirits, and a fixation on finding out what happens (if anything) to our consciousnesses and beings after death. He's smart and educated enough to keep a journal of his observations and experiments, which include leaving a tape recorder running in the vicinity of newly deceased residents of Lark Hall. Otherwise, Edward is perceived as antisocial by his peers, his teachers, and his parents; this characteristic gets more pronounced when his promised return to his own room, made possible by the death of one resident, is thwarted by Clarence's arrival. Edward resents Clarence, and Clarence resents the boy's displays of anger, but it turns out there is a potential bond between them -- Edward is fixated on magic of the mystical, occult sort, and can't get over the fact that Clarence was (and still is, to some extent) a stage magician, trading in magic of an observable (if illusory) nature. After a near-tragedy, the two bond out of this sometimes ill-fitting, seemingly common interest -- what really motivates them both, of course, is the feelings of dislocation that each of them feels, Edward from living among elderly people so close to death, and Clarence over having outlived his estranged wife (to whom he never had a chance to apologize for his philandering) and just about everyone else he ever knew.

The script and the actors tell this tale of misunderstandings and reconciliation to and with life (and reality) at a leisurely pace, with lots of entertaining moments along the way. There is a good deal of dark humor, some of it making one think of an episode of Fawlty Towers as it might have been written by Roald Dahl, along the way. And there are a few tragic and near-tragic moments, one with a comedic twist that's one of the funniest moments in the movie (it involves the accidental cutting off of a body part, on a live person, but trust us, it's funny). Michael Caine has become the kind of actor who can dominate the screen with the cock of an eyebrow, and he gets so many good scenes here that he could've made the likes of Laurence Olivier (who had The Entertainer to his credit) or Ralph Richardson (who had Long Day's Journey Into Night on his resume) jealous of what he gets to do here. Amazingly, young Bill Milner holds his own in their scenes together (he's an actor to watch, if he doesn't find something else to interest him as a profession), and Anne-Marie Duff and David Morrissey also fare well as Edward's parents, as does Linzey Cocker as an employee. But special mention must also go here to veteran performers Peter Vaughan, Rosemary Harris, Thelma Barlow, Sylvia Syms, Elizabeth Spriggs, and Leslie Phillips as the other residents of Lark Hall -- it's a treat to see these actors, who between them have about 500 years of history on stage and screen, working in roles that give them a chance to show what they can still do. Peter Vaughan is nearly as merciless a scene stealer as Caine, and their key scene together is about as comically painful a piece of slapstick as one could get away with in a modern movie without raising eyebrows, with a killer punch line in the next scene. Otherwise, the movie keeps an amazingly light tone under John Crowley's direction, a double surprise given the seeming seriousness of the subject and some of the events. This is a drama that will leave one smiling, deeply, and it's well worth the visit to a theater to see, for at least a half-dozen good reasons besides its overall quality, which is superb. The only problem may lie in the accents, which some Americans in 2009 might find difficult in some moments to penetrate in terms of the nuances of some incidental dialogue. But that's a minor consideration with a picture as finely acted and made as this one -- which even manages a nod to '80s popular culture with some skillful (and seriously dramatic) use of a vastly popular movie franchise (featuring a star who traded in the exaggerated illusion of youth for years) of that decade in one key scene.

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  • Released: 2008
  • Rating: PG-13
  • Review: Is Anybody There? is the kind of life-affirming comedy that American filmmakers such as Frank Capra used to do in the 1930s, and which somehow got lost in our cultural ethos with the coming and passing of the 1960s. Fortunately, in England it's still possi… (more)

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