Is Anybody There?

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Michael Caine is as familiar to moviegoers as an old sofa — his wrinkles and folds are worn but snug and his is a comforting presence that's easy to overlook. But now and then an antique reveals new treasures. Caine is absolutely magnificent as the Amazing Clarence, an elderly magician facing one final disappearing act, his every nod and grumble offering surprises beyond the limits of the predictable story around him.

That story tiptoes on the precipice of treacle, as Caine checks into a creaky English country house, converted into a retirement community loaded with stock elderly eccentrics. There's the old soldier, the guy who keeps repeating the same phrase, the house busybody, and Rosemary Harris (remember Aunt May?) as a spirited hoofer keen to keep dancing despite her failing legs. The house's most interesting resident is the most problematic, the bright but morbidly obsessed 11-year-old Eddie (Bill Milner), who records the death rattles of patients and scribbles notes in his ghost journal. All his older pals here keep dying, but he still befriends the gruff and blustery Clarence, who's secretly grateful for any kind of audience. The old wizard has a trunk full of tricks, and memories, especially of the ex-wife he never got to say goodbye to but never stopped loving.

As sure as a rabbit out of a hat, the mismatched innocent and curmudgeon help each other to a higher understanding, with equal parts earned tears and forced hokum.

Peter Harness's script wobbles as badly as the memories of his senior characters; one moment's wise, another's trite, and he never seems to properly resolve the clutter around the leads — Eddie's bickering parents, Dad's midlife crisis and the kooky residents all serve as set dressing. Still, young Milner is an uncommonly sensitive little actor, capable to hang with pros and create chemistry. And then there's Caine; a tragically wounded old beast wielding plenty of onscreen magic.

Opens Friday, May 8, at the Landmark Maple Art Theatre, 4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111.

Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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