To most people under 50, Jerry Lewis is a ghost dimly remembered from Muscular Dystrophy Telethons or black-and-white movies that made their parents laugh. They don’t know he finished in the box office top ten for 13 of 14 years, from 1951 through 1964. They don’t realize he was a fine if divisive actor, perfecting a boorish shtick that was unlike his own personality.
His talents resurface in the poignant “Max Rose,” an 83-minute film that’s exactly as long as it needs to be and an honest depiction of a man a lot of us have met: stubborn, lonely, unwilling to make friends after the passing of his wife, barely inclined to address unfinished emotional business in his family before his own demise.
Writer-director Daniel Noah gets a lot of mileage in silent closeups from Lewis’ wizened face and melancholy eyes. But the star, who was 87 when this was shot in 2013, gives a complex performance: Anger and need seep out of him, even as he closes himself off.
After his wife of 65 years dies, Max finds a compact given to her by another man. It’s from 1959, when Max was a jazz pianist who often toured and recorded, and it reads “Eva: You are the secret in my heart. Ben.”
Max has decided to spend the rest of his days watching television, even after granddaughter Annie (Kerry Bishé) steers him into an assisted living center. Yet the locket nags at him. Was his wife unfaithful once, long ago? All her life, at least in spirit? If his marriage was a failure, and he never knew, what does that say about Max? He decides to find out. If the end of his quest isn’t startling, he learns a lot along the way.
Except for the endearing Bishé, Noah staffs the movie with veterans: Kevin Pollak as Max’s estranged son, Ileanna Douglas as a counselor at the center, Dean Stockwell as the mystery man. Rance Howard, Lee Weaver and Mort Sahl add zip as new friends who bring Max out of his shell with music.
Claire Bloom has an extended cameo as the wry Eva. Even the writers of the title song, composer Michel Legrand and lyricists Marilyn and Alan Bergman, were in their 80s at the time. (Don’t count them out for a third shared Oscar next year.)
Old age hangs over this narrative at every turn. It inhabits a world frivolous American moviegoers seldom visit: The last way station before death, where the will and body and memory all begin to fail together. We’re lucky Noah took us there and let Lewis be our guide.
☆ ☆ ☆
Cast: Jerry Lewis, Kerry Bishé, Kevin Pollak, Dean Stockwell.
Writer-Director: Daniel Noah.
Length: 83 minutes.
Rating: Unrated (mild harsh language).