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Curious Case of Friendship that Transcends Age

MOVIE REVIEW
Is Anybody There? (2009)

0201 Is Anybody There Photo Nick Wall
Nick Wall/Big Beach Films

“Is Anybody There?,” the latest in a long line of painstakingly sweet British coming-of-age stories, features the requisite elements of such a cinematic production. Peter Harness’s screenplay showcases distant parents, a wide-eyed, curious adolescent, an oddball setting and a surly older father figure. Director John Crowley gives the material a tone that oscillates between humor and sadness, and the heavenly clouds that gather over the seaside setting ideally suit the narrative’s evocation of the major stages in the circle of life.

The picture stars Bill Milner as Edward, a young boy growing up under most unusual circumstances. Mom (Anne-Marie Duff) and dad (David Morrissey) have turned the family home into a center for the aged, forcing Edward to give up his bedroom and spend a lot of time surrounded by elderly, borderline catatonic patients. His strange home life indelibly affects him; death’s looming presence leads to a fascination with the afterlife, and the possibility of communicating with the deceased. Sheer boredom draws him to Clarence (Michael Caine), a former magician, the newest resident and altogether more self-aware than his counterparts.

Movies as heavily calculated as “Is Anybody There?” run the risk of succumbing to the perils of their extreme preciousness. With every character featuring some sort of eccentricity, every plot development oriented to Edward’s onset of maturity and frequent digressions into his imagination, the picture runs the constant risk of seeming detached from the concerns of the everyday world. It’s up to the actors to keep things grounded.

Fortunately, the film finds its emotional center in the relationship between Edward and Clarence. Messrs. Milner and Caine create a genuine, affectionate bond. The former affects an appropriately combative personality that draws out just how out of place he’s become at home. Simultaneously, the latter evokes the pain of the aging process in his portrait of a proud man struggling with his infirmaries, coping with the eternal challenge of reconciling his mental proficiencies with his physical limitations. Given to fits of irrational anger and moments of heartfelt compassion, Mr. Caine convinces as the sort of figure that would leave an indelible impression on a youngster like Edward.

They’re so good it’s almost possible to forgive the abundance of clichés and shake off the sense that the entire story’s been manufactured to hit whimsical notes. Almost, but not quite: The genre's artificialities make the entire enterprise seem, ultimately, rather trivial.

IS ANYBODY THERE?

Opens on April 17 in New York and on May 1 in Britain.

Directed by John Crowley; written by Peter Harness; director of photography, Rob Hardy; edited by Trevor Waite; music by Joby Talbot; production designer, Kave Quinn; produced by David Heyman, Peter Saraf and Mark Turtletaub; released by Story Island Entertainment. Running time: 1 hour 32 minutes. This film is rated PG-13 by M.P.A.A. and 12A by B.B.F.C.

WITH: Michael Caine (Clarence), Anne-Marie Duff (Mum), David Morrissey (Dad), Rosemary Harris (Elsie), Bill Milner (Edward) and Leslie Phillips (Reg).

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