Greetings again from the darkness. It’s pretty rare that an actor goes twenty plus years between lead roles, but such is the case for the legendary comedian and Muscular Dystrophy telethon host Jerry Lewis. Writer/director Daniel Noah’s film was shown at Cannes Film Festival in 2013 as part of the tribute to Lewis, but it’s taken about three years for it to gain any type of United States distribution.
The film begins with a grief-stricken Max Rose (Lewis) dealing with the death of Eva, his wife of 65 years (played by the great Claire Bloom). We see Eva in flashbacks to little life moments, and also as an apparition and conversation partner as Max tries to solve the mystery of a 1959 make-up case … it’s a mystery that could destroy Max’s memories and the accepted version of his life.
Max is being looked after on a regular basis by his doting granddaughter (Kerry Bishe) and periodically by his son (Kevin Pollack), who has more than enough stress in his own life. Max, a retired jazz pianist, has clearly never been the warmest or most open of gents, and the eulogy he delivers at Eva’s funeral can best be described as self-centered.
Soon enough, Max has moved into an assisted-living facility and the best scenes of the film find him re-discovering life with the likes of Rance Howard, Lee Weaver and Mort Sahl. Unfortunately this sequence is short-lived and Max is back on the trail of the mystery make-up case … which leads him to the mansion of a movie producer named Ben (or BS, if you’re looking for a punchline). Dean Stockwell and Jerry Lewis are two screen veterans who know how to work off of one another, but just aren’t given much to work within their time together.
And that’s probably the film’s greatest weakness … it leans heavily on nostalgia. Seeing Jerry Lewis (age 90 today) back on screen generates a warm feeling – as do Ms. Bloom and the other old-timers, but the story is just too simple to provide any real insight or commentary on aging, loss, or family stress or secrets. The combination of nostalgia and sentimentality can work provided there is more depth – something that’s simply lacking with our story and characters.
Mr. Lewis gamely plays an unsympathetic character, and does capture the cantankerous nature that we’ve all witnessed in some elderly folks. There is even a laugh out loud moment featuring knitted pot holders, and we do get Lewis in a red clown nose – fortunately without his “Hey Lady!” voice. What’s missing is the depth required if one plans to tackle a theme like making peace with the past … especially when the past isn’t there to defend herself.