Featuring comic giant Jerry Lewis’ first feature-film appearance since “Funny Bones” in 1995, “Max Rose” — named for the actor’s newly widowed eightysomething pianist — is a sappy sudser in which every stage of grief overstays its welcome. This excruciating indie from debuting writer-director Daniel Noah looks like a ‘90s-era Lifetime original and sounds not a lot livelier thanks to Michel Legrand’s wallowing piano score. Only the most undiscriminating senior audiences — or the most irrationally charitable of Lewis fans — will find much to appreciate in a would-be weepie that runs under 90 minutes but feels twice as long.
Lewis is a bona fide bigscreen legend for all sorts of good reasons, one being his inimitable repertoire of wild facial contortions. But where mugging in a comedy is one thing, mugging in a melodrama is quite another. As Max Rose, a terminal sad sack who learns after his wife’s death that she may have been unfaithful to him early in their marriage, Lewis doesn’t deliver a dramatic performance so much as a rote run-through of extreme expressions — from bug-eyed stares, winces, squints and grimaces to a toothy grin as the narrative clouds (and his eyebrows) finally lift.
The rest of the slender cast seems to engage in a film-long form of servitude, as Max’s highly selective appreciation of people — a shtick drawn straight from Buddy Love in “The Nutty Professor” — commands all around him either to bask in or toil for his approval. His grown granddaughter, the beautiful young Annie (Kerry Bishe), enjoys a special status that borders on the creepy, while his real-estate broker son (Kevin Pollak) can do nothing right, not even when he’s gingerly professing his love for Pop.
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Max may be a victim — both of his wife’s death and of her possible indiscretion in 1959 — but it’s hard to sympathize with a man whose eulogy of the deceased is all about him. Moving into an elder care facility when his cognitive abilities begin to fail, Max gives a tiny bit of attention to each of three other nursing home inmates (including one played by Mort Sahl); far and away the film’s best scene has the old guys drunkenly comparing notes on the indignities of aging.
It’s clear that Max is daydreaming when he imagines his lovely wife (Claire Bloom) advising him to “keep looking” for clues to her past. But in the absence of appropriate visual cues from Noah, other fantastical events appear as simply implausible, including Max’s climactic meeting with the proverbial other man (Dean Stockwell), as well as his use of a pay phone outside a restaurant in Los Angeles.
“Max Rose” is set in the present day, but seems to take place in the distant past; the pic’s awkward nostalgia culminates in a slo-mo montage of vintage film clips culled from “Method to the Madness of Jerry Lewis,” a documentary aired on cable last year. Print caught at Cannes contained only minimal end credits.