Part of the specified blueprint in Hollywood is the once lauded, elderly actor making a triumphant return and gaining critical swan song acclaim. Richard Farnsworth in David Lynch’s The Straight Story. Bruce Dern in Nebraska. Hal Holbrook in Into the Wild. Cue Oscar cutaways, respected more for their venerable career than anything else.
The latest veteran to make his big screen return is Jerry Lewis in Daniel Noah’s Max Rose. Even though the film (and Lewis’ role) won’t make the exceptional Oscar grade come early next year, it is an admirable character study that not only sees Lewis give a measured and low-key performance, but reminds us of the inherent charm that won so many audiences over to Lewis’ persona in the 50’s and 60’s.
Still not looking his age of nearly 90, Max Rose opens with Lewis quietly dealing with the death of his wife (Claire Bloom) after 60 plus years of marriage. Constantly consoled by his granddaughter, played to cheery perfection by Kerry Bishe, Max just wants to be left alone and wander through the memories of his relationship.
It’s only at the funeral, after Max gives a perplexing and masochistic speech about their life together, that Max Rose moves beyond the simple idea of pushing onward after the death of a loved one and examines their relationship from a much darker aspect.
If the idea of emotional ghosts rising up to haunt the living feels like a tried-and-true narrative trope (the framework which also invades the lives of an elderly couple in last year’s wonderful film 45 Years), it’s because it is. What Max Rose does, guided by Lewis and a face that can look alternatively curmudgeon one moment then ultimately humane the next, is navigate these common ideas with grace. And it’s when the film breaks from the mold and simply observes Lewis as a 90 year old, learning how to laugh and live again without his wife, that it really excels.
After a health scare, Max is placed in an assisted living facility where he ends up drinking and exchanging stories with men his same age. In one scene, the men (played by actors such as Rance Howard, Lee Weaver and Mort Sahl) exchange stories and the reverie between them is tangible. Another example of role reversal comes towards the end of the film when — without giving too much away — Max faces, perhaps, the toughest hurdle after the loss of his wife, and the scene plays out in a brutally honest way.
Less successful is the relationship drawn out between Max and his son (Kevin Pollack). Pollack’s glib pandering towards his father and the quickly resolved bowtie saddled around them in the final scene feels misguided after so many other carefully registered interactions throughout the film.
As a sophomore film written and directed by Noah, Max Rose contains plenty of opportunities to slide into made-for-TV melodrama and it wisely avoids many of those pitfalls. The only real backstory given to Max is that he was once a semi-popular pianist, given his break and producing one studio album. Several concert posters adorn the walls of his middle class California home, but they don’t seem to define Max as a person. That identification came in the form of his loving wife, and when those foundations are rocked, Max Rose settles into a small drama that tries to understand and come to terms with those cracks in his life. I can understand why Lewis emerged out of semi-retirement for this role; I just hope its not his blueprint swan song.
Max Rose opens in the Dallas/Fort Worth area on Friday, September 16, at the Landmark Inwood.