Over at MSNBC, Alonso Duralde has a blast with the bafflingly not-screened-for-critics Crank: High Voltage, saying, “Imagine a gonzo collaboration between Jean-Luc Godard, Michael Bay and Tex Avery on a weekend meth binge, and you begin to get an idea of what writer-directors Mark Neveldine and Brad Taylor have up their sleeves.” Meanwhile, somewhere, Amy Smart throws up gang signs, and yells, “Holla!“
A simple, straightforward and sweetly dispositioned multi-generational dramedy without much thunderclap revelation, Michael Caine‘s Is Anybody There? marks the sort of solid, unfussy, character-rooted filmmaking that Hollywood studios have mostly abandoned in their pursuit of the latest hot-shit comic book or videogame property.
Set in 1980s seaside England, the movie tells the story of gangly 10-year-old Edward (Son of Rambow‘s wide-eyed, skinny-armed Bill Milner), whose parents have turned their small house into a retirement home. While his mother (Anne-Marie Duff) struggles to keep the family business afloat and his father (David Morrissey) copes with the onset of a mid-life crisis exacerbated by the proximity of a young assistant, Edward becomes increasingly obsessed with the ghosts and potential afterlives of the residents when they die.
Naturally, this hobby doesn’t exactly make him popular with the other kids at school. In fact, Edward’s existence is a relatively lonely one until he meets Clarence (Caine), the latest arrival at his parents’ home. A cranky, retired magician and bitterly grieving widower who refuses to give in gracefully to old age, Clarence butts heads with Edward, but soon notices that the boy is growing up even more fitfully than he’s growing old. As they begin to face life together, Clarence takes steps toward coming to terms with his past, while Edward curbs his obsession with the unknown. Along the way, both are reminded of what magic is possible when life is lived to its fullest.
Written by Peter Harness and directed by John Crowley (Boy A), Is Anybody There? seems made for a comfortable, rainy day double feature with 2003’s Secondhand Lions, another film in which Caine plays a somewhat irascible mentor to a precocious youngster. His performance isn’t ferocious or wildly theatrical, but instead just rather perfectly modulated. Unselfconsciously naturalistic, Milner exhibited a tremendous sympathy in Son of Rambow, and he doesn’t disappoint here, either. He serves as a believable foil to Caine, and the two have a pleasant chemistry, whether sparring or circling one another in quietly appreciative fashion.
As the movie advances, its one story-related reveal — the card up its sleeve, as it were — might become readily evident to those searching for a narrative pivot. In the end, that doesn’t matter, because of the smart way the film is put together, the full-bodied emotions granted each character, and a wild, bloody, darkly humorous magic trick gone wrong that wouldn’t have ever made the cut in a conventional Hollywood dramedy. Maybe it’s best to leave these sorts of micro-targeted tales to the indie peddlers, after all. (Big Beach, PG-13, 94 minutes)