There was a time when Michael Caine appeared in every second movie at the cineplex. At least it seemed that way. In a career that spans 5 decades he’s appeared in 140 movies, 25 in the last nine years alone. They haven’t all been winners—remember Quicksand? Me neither—but what remains remarkable is that no matter the quality of the movie Caine is always the best thing in it. He makes movie acting look easy, which means, of course that he’s really good at it and while I haven’t completely forgiven him for Jaws: The Revenge or On Deadly Ground, I still look forward to seeing his easy charm on screen.
In the last year or so he’s slowed down his output—he is 76 years-old-after all—so while he isn’t exactly the omnipresent figure he once was, he still works more than most actors a third his age. His latest film, Is Anybody There?, probably won’t rank in Sir Michael’s career top ten, but as usual he hands in exemplary work playing a retired magician named the Amazing Clarence.
Written by Peter Harness, who based the script on his experiences growing up in a retirement home, Is Anybody There? is simultaneously the coming-of-age and old age story of Edward, a death-obsessed youngster (Son of Rambow’s Bill Miner) and Clarence, a prickly vaudevillian (Caine) who has grudgingly entered the old age home run by Edward’s parents. Set in a seaside English town in 1987 the movie charts the course of the friendship that develops between the two as Clarence gradually succumbs to dementia.
Is Anybody There? plays like a bleaker version of Secondhand Lions, the 2003 Michael Caine movie co-starring Haley Joel Osment in the role of the young boy. The main difference is that Is Anybody There? is a understated and micro-budgeted British film that treats the Clarence and Edward like real people and not just characters. Much of that wonderful realism is due to the cast, who are uniformly excellent, but Caine and young Bill Miner really shine.
Miner is the new Freddie Highmore, a child actor without an ounce of preciousness. In this film and Son of Rambow he hands in naturalistic performances that feel genuinely unmannered and real. Some actors take years of study to learn the technique that Miner seems to come by naturally.
Miner sparkles, but the reason to see the movie is Michael Caine. On the whole the film is a bit uneven, wobbling a bit as time goes on, but Caine’s understated and powerful performance elevates the entire movie. When he says, “You accumulate regrets and they stick to you like bruises,” his sad eyes—he may have the most expressive peepers in the movies—reveal an ocean of pain behind the faded blue of his pupils. Other times his light touch shines through. On reincarnation Clarence says he’d like to come back as a badger, “because they’re bad tempered and they look good.” It’s a wonderfully calibrated performance from an old master.
Is Anybody There? is a quietly film about growing up and growing old, that is by turns gently humorous, melancholy and most of all, heartfelt.