By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 17, 2016)
“Have you heard about the restaurant on the moon? Great food, no atmosphere.” For better or worse, that’s the best line in Max Rose, Jerry Lewis’ first starring vehicle since Peter Chelsom’s 1995 sleeper Funny Bones.
Not that Max Rose is intended to be a comedy…far from it. Writer-director Daniel Noah’s film has much more gravity (ahem) than that timeworn groaner may infer.
Lewis is the titular character, a retired jazz pianist grieving over the recent death of his wife (Claire Bloom, relegated to flashbacks and the odd hallucination). Understandably, Max is a little morose (endless static shots of a brooding, stone-faced Lewis ensure that we “get” that).
Even his sunny-side up granddaughter Annie (Kerry Bishe) can barely get him to crack a smile. Again, Max did just lose his wife of 60 years; yet some deeply buried injury seems to be tugging at him.
Max’s eulogy at his wife’s funeral turns into an oddly self-deprecating rant, alarming both Annie and his son Christopher (Kevin Pollak). Soon thereafter, Max has a health scare while alone at home that prompts The Talk (the one we all dread…about assisted living).
Max reluctantly acquiesces and checks in to a nursing home, but remains stubbornly aloof toward staff and fellow residents, until he gets liquored up one night with a posse of lively codgers (Mort Sahl, Rance Howard and Lee Weaver).
Defenses down, Max now opens up about his deeper hurt, something he discovered about his wife’s past while sorting through her personal effects after her death. He realizes the only way he’s going to have closure is to go meet face-to-face with an involved party.
Despite the bevy of acting talent on board, this film (an uneven mash-up of The Descendents with The Sunshine Boys) ultimately feels like a squandered opportunity. Lewis has proved himself to be a capable enough dramatic actor in the past (particularly in The King of Comedy, Arizona Dream, and the aforementioned Funny Bones), but here his performance flirts with mawkishness.
To give him the benefit of the doubt, perhaps he was doing his best with the sappy script. There are good moments; a protracted scene between Lewis and the always interesting Dean Stockwell hints at what could have been, but is not enough to raise the film above its steady level of “meh”.