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Is Anybody There?

Michael Caine stars as an aging magician

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Big Beach Films

Michael Caine and Bill Milner form an unlikely friendship in Is Anybody There?

"Is Anybody There?" (opening May 1 at Landmark's Hillcrest Cinemas) is another small independent film daring to share the weekend with the first of the Hollywood onslaught of summer blockbusters. But then maybe those who would venture off to see a film about a retirement home in Northern England would not be tempted in the least by "Wolverine." "Is Anybody There?" is essentially a two-actor showcase for Michael Caine as an aging magician and Bill Milner (the sprite from "Son of Rambow") as a young lad obsessed with death and the afterlife.

Edward (Bill Milner) is eleven years old and pissed off. His parents run a retirement home where the family must also live. The presence of so many old people on the verge of death has made Edward obsessed with the supernatural. He wants to find out what happens after we die. So he places a tape recorder in the rooms where old folks have passed away in the hopes of recording something from beyond the grave. But when a new boarder comes in, Edward gets moved out of his room. So the youngster has to put up with a houseful of decrepit, aged, and mentally frail people as well as dealing with the fact that he doesn't feel at home in his own house. Add to this that his dad is infatuated with the 18-year-old health care assistant and you have a rather dysfunctional household. The new member of this extended family is Clarence (Michael Caine), a surly retired magician who misses his wife and his old life and can't stand being with a bunch of old farts. Clarence and Edward get off on the wrong foot with each other but eventually form a bond based on both rejecting the company of others.

Not surprisingly, the film deals with questions of death and dying. But it strikes an odd tone, something between sentimentality and bleak matter of factness. There are times when the emotions in the film are downright trite and predictable. But then there are other times when it is blunt and harsh in its insistence that there is nothing after death. The bleakness comes from the suggestion that at a certain point in life, death can also be a welcome relief. So at times it seems like a film about giving up and surrendering. Director John Crowley and writer Peter Harness don't handle the odd mix of tones well. Screenwriter Harness draws on his own boyhood memories of growing up in his parents' nursing home in Yorkshire in the 1980s as the basis for the film. But there's uncertainty in his approach and that's what makes the film problematic: he's both succumbing to clichés and trying to short circuit them.

The place where the film succeeds is with the performances. Michael Caine serves up a stellar performance that's only occasionally tinged by maudlin emotions. He best when he's surly or possessed by a purpose, less so when entering stages of dementia. Milner, who was quite the charmer in "Son of Rambow," proves appealing here as well. He holds his own with Caine and the two play well off each other.

"Is Anybody There?" (rated PG-13 for language including sexual references, and some disturbing images) is best suited to fans of Michael Caine. The film showcases him as an actor but doesn't deliver much beyond that.

Companion viewing: "The Son of Rambow," "Alfie," "Where's Poppa?"

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