Let me begin by saying that there is no way possible to get too much Sir Michael Caine on the big screen. I will also freely admit to not seeing nearly enough of his films. That said, anytime you see him in a film, regardless of what it is, you are in the presence of greatness. Sometimes I think we take excellence for granted when greatness is turned in with such regularity. To prove the point, who other than Meryl Streep could have turned in a performance in Mamma Mia! and make it award worthy? (She was nominated for a Golden Globe). As I sat in the theater watching Michael Caine's performance in Is Anybody There? it dawned on me just how great he is, his work here is phenomenal.
When you look at the feature from a high level, it does not look like anything new. Perhaps, the key is to recognize when the formula is put to good use, to know when you should see a formula piece and when you should choose to avoid such a film. Unfortunately, there is no tried and true formula, you must rely on your gut instinct, call upon your film viewing experience, the skills of the involved actors, and the quality of the trailer. You will not win all of them and there will be times when your affections may override rational thought. An example of that for me is the Jessica Alba vehicle Honey (I still like it). As for an example of one I chose to avoid you need look no further than this past weekend. I chose to pass on Obsession, I think I would be better off staying home and revisiting something like Fatal Attraction.
As for Is Anybody There?, the story, set in 1987, centers on a bitter old man and a troubled young boy who become friends over a period of time, resulting in a life changing relationship between the two. Wow, sounds original, no? You're right, it isn't, but once you put that aside and allow yourself to become invested in the lives of these people, you will discover a rewarding experience that has the formula, but does not become a slave to it.
The boy of our story is Edward (Bill Milner, Son of Rambow), he is a ten year old child who is having a little trouble with his life. He is picked on at school, ignored at home, and has developed a fascination with death and what happens next. To that end, he feeds his fascination with the afterlife by recording the old people that live in his home during there last moments of life, hoping to capture some proof of the afterlife. Oh yes, I forgot to mention, Edward's mother has turned their home into a retirement home and is now playing host to an eccentric group of elderly folks with a variety of issues including Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease (I believe).
This proximity to aging and dying has warped the youngster's outlook in a way that could spell doom for his ability to deal with it later in life. It is at this point that Edward first encounters The Amazing Clarence (Sir Michael Caine). He is a retired magician and a grieving widower, and also happens to be moving into what used to be Edward's room.
At first, the two are adversarial. Clarence wants nothing to do with the kid, much less the rest of the collected old folks. Before long, the two bond over magic and hey begin to see something in the other that they did not see earlier. Clarence sees the bitterness growing inside of Edward, he sees himself, only getting a much earlier start. On the other side of the coin, Edward sees the sadness in Clarence.
Together they embark on a new path, different from the ones they were on. They joined together to help each other find a new way to move forward to the next stage of their lives. Yes, I realize how cliched that sounds. Have we not seen this story a million times before?
What makes this one so different than others of its kind?
The screenplay, by Peter Harness, has intelligence and heart. The story does not condescend to its audience, the story has a natural flow that makes sense and pays off in the end. Then there are the performances. Michael Caine steals the show, he brings such wounded humanity to the role. At first he comes across as rather hard nosed and aloof, but we come o find a deeply damaged, vulnerable person. Then there is young Bill Milner, he is a kid here, rather than being an acting child, he is one who lets his emotions do the heavy lifting, reacting to the situation. He may not be a great actor, but he is definitely showing some skill on the screen.
Bottomline. This is a delightful movie. There is a strong sense of reality and it does not feel trapped by the conventions of the formula. Then there are the performances, this is definitely a film to savor.