By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Like the title character he plays in Max Rose, Jerry Lewis has been out of the limelight for the last two decades.
Of course, with Lewis, we’re talking about the movie business, whereas Max is a musician.
But the parallel is so striking, it’s easy to see Max Rose as a premature memorial for comic icon Lewis as opposed to a fiction.
For one-of-a-kind Lewis, a favorite of impressionists everywhere, this is his first feature film appearance since Funny Bones in 1995.
But as out-of-his-comfort-zone as this serious role might appear to be for for him, remember how fine he was in a serious role in Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy (1982).
As revered as Lewis is in France, his reputation has taken a hit over the years in the United States. But whatever the public thinks of his on-screen or off-screen or small-screen involvements, his genius as a comic and the amount of enjoyment and hilarity he brought to those of us who grew up on the movies he directed and appeared in with partner Dean Martin remain indelible memories.
Which is my way of saying that I really wanted to like Max Rose, which – alas — turns out to be an interesting but problematic movie.
The affection and respect that writer-director Daniel Noah (Twelve), a writer and producer directing his second feature film, has for Lewis is obvious, but that doesn’t quite translate into strongly compelling theatrics, even though Noah based his screenplay on the lives of his own grandparents.
Octogenarian Lewis plays a retired eighty-something jazz pianist who is in a tailspin because his beloved wife of 65 years, played in flashbacks by Claire Bloom, has just passed away.
While going through her things, he finds a mysterious note that seems to suggest that she had a serious relationship with another man years ago but during their marriage.
Could this be true? Was she unfaithful? In fact, wonders Max, was she not really in love with him?
His preoccupation with getting to the truth affects his relationship with his doting granddaughter, a fifth-grade teacher played by Kerry Bishe, with whom he does get along famously, and his relationship with his son, a real estate broker played by Kevin Pollak, with whom he most assuredly does not get along.
When Max is moved into an elder care facility, he befriends a few new buddies (played by Mort Sahl, Rance Howard, and Lee Weaver), but his obsession with tracking down “the other man” remains urgent.
And then he does manage to find the man, played by Dean Stockwell, and gain a certain amount of closure, good or bad.
Lewis does a bit too much in the way of serious, embittered mugging, but he still manages to make Max real.
He plays him as a major curmudgeon and the director features more closeups of his leading man than is sensible. But this is still a thinly written, if generously photographed, character, and that’s true of the supporting cast as well.
However, Lewis still knows how, as all the great ones do, to play to that lens.
As for Noah, his mind is on endings and aging and loss and grief, but we notice a little too often all the effort being expended. And while we respect the aesthetic attempt without losing ourselves in it, we don’t get as emotionally invested as we’d like to.
For Lewis, it’s nonetheless another feather in his considerable cap.
So we’ll obsess over 2 stars out of 4. Respectable but uneven, Max Rose is a dramatic hat’s-off to a king of comedy.