The bittersweet British film Is Anybody There? manages to be both heartwarming and irritating in equal measure. The story hinges on one of those Harold and Maude, generationally-mismatched odd couples who should have little in common, but after a difficult period of mutual disdain, end up having quite a bit.
Clarence (Michael Caine) is a lonely, curmudgeonly magician who tours the British countryside in his garishly-painted camper. Clarence's nemesis is the precocious, death obsessed 10-year-old Edward (Bill Milner, star of Son of Rambow). The pair meet cute when Clarence nearly runs over the oblivious Edward on a country road.
Edward lives with his parents (Anne-Marie Duff and David Morrissey) in the house they have turned into an old folk's home, Lark Hall. Surrounded by death, young Edward is naturally obsessed with it. His fear of what happens next stokes a consuming curiosity with Arthur C. Clarke, ghostly visitations, and all things paranormal.
With its womb-like brown decor and overstuffed chairs, Lark Hall is a repository for unfulfillable longing and emotional stasis. The environs are made even more pathetic by Mum's guitar strumming or the greasy hippie who entertains the residents with a singalong version of "Wheels on the Bus." The resident retired dancing instructor keeps a pair of pristine pumps under her bed, but sports a plastic leg. Her dancing days — we can't help but miss in writer Peter Harness' leading-by-the-nose script — are over.
Edward's parents have problems too: his geriaphile mother is obsessed with her alternately foul-minded and mentally soft-boiled residents. And Edward's unfortunately-mustached father has a roving eye for a flirtatious teenage employee. The self-centered duo are too fixated on business and their own needs to pay attention to their morbid kid.
Edward is consumed with longing too: for answers. He totes a recording device to measure the last utterance of the elderly residents who die on the premises. And he is certain if he conducts enough seances and keeps his eyes open, he will communicate with the great beyond.
Like an overwrought actor playing to the back of the room, director John Crowley tends to telegraph his ambitions. We know immediately that the "magic" has dissipated from Clarence's life, gone with his dead wife and his faded youth. Naturally, someone is going to have to help him dust off that old magic and in the film's first few frames, we know just who. The ironic crux of the film? That it is often the elderly Clarence who must talk embryonic Edward into lightening up, already.
"Join hands and make contact with the living," Clarence admonishes.
As Edward, Bill Milner does an impressive job playing an underage ghoul. It's hard to think of a more melancholy half-pint since the similarly pallid and sullen, death-stalked Freddie Highmore rocketed into our hearts in Finding Neverland. And though he's not quite as poignant as Julie Christie playing the beautiful older woman suffering with Alzheimer's in Away From Her, Michael Caine, at age 76, taps into that peculiar pathos that occurs when we witness a formerly vibrant, sexually dynamic actor aging onscreen.
We see our own mortality reflected in Caine's altered body and his faded mind. Caine is the film's saving grace; his ever-present sense of menace (he at one point suggests Edward join him for a cigarette) and W.C. Fields-style wise-cracking put distance between Clarence and the geriatric cuteness Harness and Crowley can't resist.
Crowley's fatal flaw here is a fear of painting the old folk's home as too grim, even as he strives at every turn to milk sentiment from death and dying. So Crowley gives Lark Hall, in the stereotypical cutesy-melancholy fashion, an annoying frill of quirk.
The residents' afflictions, from shaky hands to infernal crankiness to dipsomania, are presented as nearly adorable. And every now and then, the intrusion of some light, perky music creeps in to console us about taking it all too seriously. The film's director and writer seem to overshadow even Edward's fear of death, anxious to crack a joke or tap on the high hat when things get too tense.