Movie Takes

Is Anybody There?

Wonderful acting, except, alas, from Michael Caine.

By 4.28.09

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As we all know, it is no longer socially acceptable to tell jokes about or make fun of racial, ethnic or religious groups, women, homosexuals, disabled people or drunks -- which pretty much depletes the stock of the old-fashioned jokesmith's materials. It was a point made a few years ago on The Simpsons when Krusty the Klown tried out his "Me velly solly" Chinese joke, obviously dating from the 1950s or earlier, on an adult audience and found that he wasn't funny anymore. It has long been apparent that the only safe targets in the movies and popular culture are Christians, white guys, and stupid people -- preferably white guys who are also Christian and stupid. But lately I have begun to wonder -- rather uneasily, as my own age advances into its autumnal phase -- if it will not soon be the case that the old are going to be seen as fair game.

Of course, they (we?) cannot help being old any more than members of the now-protected minorities can help being what they are. But the old may have to forfeit the protection these other, more favored groups are afforded if only because there are getting to be so many of them -- and because young people will soon be waking up to the dirty trick their elders have played on them by running up astronomical debts while refusing to breed enough future earners to pay the debts off. The growing acceptance of euthanasia may give these selfish old codgers less to worry about than the acid-tongues of comedians yet unborn who know they owe their 50 or 60 percent tax rates to grandpa's propensity to borrow and spend like a drunken sailor -- no offense to drunken sailors -- in pursuit of the quaint utopian superstitions of now-enfeebled baby-boomers.

If my crystal ball is not malfunctioning, an early indication of what is to come may be found in John Crowley's Is Anybody There? Certainly, the old folks get it in the neck in this movie, which has its moments but eventually sort of peters out. The one thing it really has going for it is the wonderful child actor Bill Milner who is here every bit as adorable as he was in last year's Son of Rambow, or as the equally cute Freddie Highmore was in Finding Neverland a few years ago. What all three of these movies have in common is the juxtaposition of the child's beauty, charm, and vitality with, in one form or another, death.

Golden lads and lasses must,
Like chimney-sweepers, come to dust.

The pathos, that is, is built in to the mise-en-scène, so that the director really has to do very little in order to milk it for all it is worth.

But the death in Is Anybody There? -- set in semi-rural England in 1987 -- is made less personal, more theoretical than it is in the other movies. Where the boys in those films have each lost a father and worry about losing a mother, Ed, the boy in Anybody, is merely surrounded by old folks in the nursing home run by his parents. He views the frequent visitations of death there with more sang froid than the other boys can do -- in fact, with a scientific detachment. For Ed wants to know what happens after you die, and he sets up a series of comical experiments to try to tap into any supernatural manifestations that may be left around the place as the old folks drop off their perches. Meanwhile, he's being made to sleep in corners and cubbyholes to make room as more of them arrive, and his parents' marriage is threatened by the passion of depressed and defeated dad (David Morrissey) for teenaged Tanya (Linzey Cocker).

Into the midst of all this there wanders the latest of the geezers, a retired magician called Clarence (Michael Caine), who is grieving for the loss of his wife, even though he was divorced from her. He never had a chance to tell her he was sorry for the infidelities that broke up their marriage, and he is inconsolable about it. Perhaps you can see where the movie is going with this. I wish I could say that Mr. Caine holds up his end of the double act with the charismatic Master Milner, but I'm afraid he doesn't. As in others of his recent films, he seems to me to be too much the Grand Old Man, in thrall to his own legend and therefore playing the part of Michael Caine playing the part of Clarence the Magician, rather than having a go at the old man himself. It doesn't help that Clarence becomes a figure of great pathos and so would siphon off the emotional energy that ought to be concentrated in the boy's quest for meaning in death, even if he weren't being played by the great Michael Caine.

All the same, there are a few funny and poignant moments -- most of them owing to the collection of veteran character actors that play the old folks, including Elizabeth Spriggs, Peter Vaughan, Leslie Phillips, Sylvia Syms and Ralph Riach. They are the ones who give us a foretaste of the laughter that the ga-ga gang of new-minted oldsters will doubtless soon be affording us and, along with Bill Milner, they make the movie (just about) worth seeing.

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About the Author

James Bowman, our movie and culture critic, is a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He is the author of Honor: A History and Media Madness: The Corruption of Our Political Culture, both published by Encounter Books.