Is There Anybody There?

Tailor-made for nursing home screenings in ancillary, "Is There Anybody There?" features Michael Caine's ingratiating turn as a senile magician who bonds with a paranormal studies-loving tween.

With:
With: Michael Caine, Anne-Marie Duff, David Morrissey, Rosemary Harris, Elizabeth Spriggs, Bill Milner, Leslie Phillips, Peter Vaughan, Linzey Cocker.

Tailor-made for nursing home screenings in ancillary, “Is There Anybody There?” features Michael Caine’s ingratiating turn as a senile magician who bonds with a paranormal studies-loving tween. Profoundly (and some would say pleasurably) formulaic, this third feature by London theater director John Crowley (“Boy A”) possesses scant cinematic energy, relying wholly on the familiar transformation of a grumpy old man into infectiously weepy humanist. As Caine’s “Amazing Clarence” longs to join his dear departed wife in the hereafter, the pic itself has a terminal case of the cutes, perhaps not to the distaste of specialty distribs seeking this year’s “Venus.”

Crowley reportedly held Peter Harness’ connect-the-dots script for years while awaiting the availability of Caine, which makes sense in that, without the actor’s guaranteed charm, the pic would have far fewer prospects.

Crotchety character is introduced unwittingly speeding his magician’s van into the path of 10-year-old Edward (Bill Milner), a ghost-chasing kid whose parents run a retirement home in seaside England, circa 1987. Describing himself as a “retired flasher” and raising the ire of an evaluating nurse by smoking in his bed, Clarence moves unhappily into the quaint Lark Hall.

Playing a death-obsessed Harold to Caine’s Maude, young Milner (“Son of Rambow”) earns points for pushing less hard than others in the ensemble, including a half-dozen grossly caricatured seniors (e.g., war vet, klepto, sexy grandpa) used interchangeably for horrified reaction shots.

The sole moment of comic surprise has the Amazing Clarence’s final magic trick appearing to go violently awry on the Lark Hall stage. An undramatic subplot has Edward’s middle-aged handyman father (David Morrissey) straining to repress his attraction to a much younger woman (Linzey Cocker), while Edward’s mom (Anne-Marie Duff) struggles to repress her anger over same.

Values of the stagebound production are adequate to the unoriginal task; piano-heavy score by Joby Talbot twinkles in all the right places.

Is There Anybody There?

U.K.-U.S.

Production: A Big Beach (New York) presentation, in association with BBC Films, of a Heyday Films (London)/Big Beach production. (International sales: Odyssey Entertainment, London.) Produced by David Heyman, Peter Saraf, Marc Turtletaub. Executive producers, David M. Thompson, Christine Langan. Co-producer, Rosie Alison. Directed by John Crowley. Written by Peter Harness.

Crew: Camera (color, widescreen), Rob Hardy; editor, Trevor Waite; music, Joby Talbot; production designer, Kave Quinn; art director, Lynne Huitson; set decorator, Gemma Ryan; costume designer, Jane Petrie; sound (Dolby Digital), Colin Nicholson; supervising sound editor, Julian Slater; casting, Fiona Weir. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentations), Sept. 8, 2008. Running time: 92 MIN.

With: With: Michael Caine, Anne-Marie Duff, David Morrissey, Rosemary Harris, Elizabeth Spriggs, Bill Milner, Leslie Phillips, Peter Vaughan, Linzey Cocker.

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