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CANNES — Even making allowances for the veneration of French cinephiles for the work of Jerry Lewis, it’s hard to comprehend the inclusion in the official Cannes selection of Max Rose, a staggeringly artless geriatric soap that sinks its dentures into every trite platitude about aging, mortality, grief and regret, only to regurgitate them again and again. Starring as a jazz pianist, Lewis says of one particular gig, “I was playing simplistically and way too melodramatic.” Sadly, he could be talking about any aspect of this sub-Hallmark Channel schmaltz.
Screenwriter-director Daniel Noah’s first feature shamelessly panders to the AARP crowd, right down to the syrupy Michel Legrand score that accompanies every obvious push of an emotional button. Premiering the film in Cannes the same day as Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, an affecting and nuanced reflection on overlapping themes, makes for especially unflattering comparison. The pedestrian script of Max Rose, along with its stiff acting, generic Los Angeles settings and harshly lit low-grade digital look make it tough to watch.
Now 87, Max is a one-hit wonder who wrote a popular late-‘50s standard called “Hurry Home,” the significance of which gradually becomes clear. Despite his failure ever to match that success, Max has led a fulfilling life, thanks largely to a long and loving marriage to the beautiful Eva (Claire Bloom). Her death leaves him shattered, shutting himself off as he sullenly refuses to talk to his son Chris (Kevin Pollak) or take comfort from his beloved granddaughter Annie (Kerry Bishe).
The discovery of an intimate inscription from another man on an antique powder compact belonging to Eva causes Max to question the foundations of their 65-year union. With a manic sense of purpose, he tears up the house looking for clues about this secret relationship. Conveniently, Eva was a sketch artist who drew something every day, so it’s not long before a portrait of a handsome man named Ben turns up, bearing the same date in 1959 as the inscription, along with a note from him.
Noah’s hoariest device is to have Max in constant dialogue with the still vividly present Eva, whose answers shed little light. But when his erratic behavior prompts Chris to check his father into a care facility, his encounters with other old codgers who share their stories about the mysteries of women give him new focus. He fronts up at the gated Bel Air mansion of former Hollywood player Ben (Dean Stockwell), yielding a tension-deprived confrontation that at least gives Max the peace he needs to move on.
Noah lumbers gracelessly between minor-key humor and sticky bathos, making scant use of Lewis’ signature persona to add shading to his character. Instead, the flat central performance is defined by one-note solemnity, flashes of anger and a seemingly inexhaustible range of Pringle sweaters. Max’s tender exchanges with the Eva of his memories are too drenched in cliche to resonate emotionally.
A scene at Musso & Frank Grill is perhaps intended to define the milieu that was once Max’s playground. But there’s neither a sense of place nor sufficient depth of character to rescue this maudlin story from banality. Bloom’s classiness and enduring loveliness aside, nobody onscreen here has anything interesting to play, including Fred Willard and Illeana Douglas in disposable roles.
Noah takes a single stab at something more directorially ambitious in a scene between Max and his eldercare cronies (one of them played by Rance Howard, who appears more memorably in Nebraska). Their didactic dialogue about the blight of advancing years and the betrayal of their bodies is cut to match the jazz rhythms of a record that they slap on the turntable and start riffing to on imaginary instruments. But the forced merriment of the scene is merely clumsy.
Max Rose was shown in Cannes specifically in homage to Lewis, who hasn’t been seen in a feature since Funny Bones in 1995. But the black-and-white photo montage during the end credits here serves that purpose with more dignity than anything that comes before.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Out of Competition)
Cast: Jerry Lewis, Claire Bloom, Kerry Bishe, Illeana Douglas, Rance Howard, Kevin Pollak, Mort Sahl, Dean Stockwell, Lee Weaver, Fred Willard
Production companies: Lightstream Pictures, Rush River
Director-screenwriter: Daniel Noah
Producers: Lawrence Inglee, Garrett Kelleher
Executive producers: Paul Currie, Cjarlie O’Carroll, Bill Walton, Matthew Malek, Gaston Pavlovich
Director of photography: Chris Blauvelt
Production designer: Ryan Warren Smith
Music: Michel Legrand
Costume designer: Courtney Hoffman
Editors: Richard Halsey, Colleen Halsey
No rating, 84 minutes.
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