Occasionally wistful, often melancholy but always charming, Is Anybody There? is a coming-of-age comedy about old age. This wise but slight film is best appreciated for another winning turn by Michael Caine as the old boy conjures a great performance out of a gossamer-thin role and proves, yet again, that he has plenty of magic up his sleeve.
Caine plays The Amazing Clarence, a bitter and sad old magician sent by the state to live in a start-up retirement home run by a couple of overworked and old- before-their-time idealists (Anne-Marie Duff and David Morrissey).
They're raising their 10-year-old sib, Edward, in Lark Hall. And being around the dead and the dying is taking its toll. Edward (Bill Milner) isn't just angry and lashing out at his parents. He's become morbidly fascinated with death and "what happens" next. He's taken to sticking a tape recorder beneath the beds of the oldest clients, trying to catch their death rattle and maybe "proof" that ghosts exist.
The Amazing Clarence, in mourning over his dead wife (and onetime stage assistant), grieving for the life that once was his, isn't having anything to do with "this cross-eyed little Herbert." But eventually, the two grumps reach out and find each other — Edward still curious about what lies beyond, Clarence having him on a bit about his morbid fascination.
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"You shouldn't joke" about ghosts, the child warns. "It'll make them vengeful."
Director John Crowley (Boy A, Intermission) brings just a smidgen of edge to Peter Harness' script — showing us not just the cute old coots, but the manifestations of Clarence's decline, a marriage in trouble, a kid who doesn't fit in with his peers and assorted cases of dementia. The great Rosemary Harris stands out as a dance teacher who has lost a leg and pretty much everything she ever loved in life but who hasn't given up.
Milner is good, with a less-showy role than he had in Son of Rambow. But Caine is the "anybody" in Is Anybody There? He gives this magician regret but also life lessons to pass on.
"Join hands and make contact with the living, son."
And there is but one word for Caine's startled/puzzled reaction to a sudden gust of wind when the lad attempts to rouse a ghost in a cemetery — magical.