Sooner or later it comes to this: Alfie develops senile dementia and lands in an old-age home.
That unsettling thought crossed my mind while savoring Michael Caine's portrayal of Clarence Parkinson, a grumpy old traveling magician nearing the end of his life in John Crowley's film Is Anybody There? Mr. Caine's face may have aged (he is now 76), but from the glint in his eyes and his snaggle-toothed smirk, he is still Alfie Elkins, the mischievous, devil-may-care seducer of Alfie, the 1966 hit film with which his name is still synonymous. Innocent he is not.
His character here, known onstage as the Amazing Clarence, has scooted around the English countryside for untold years demonstrating magic in a
rattletrap camper painted like a circus wagon. When he pulls up at Lark Hall, a ramshackle seaside house that has been turned into a retirement home, he knows it is the final stop in his peripatetic itinerary.
The film, which teeters between comedy and pathos, is essentially a two-character exercise from the Harold and Maude school of tear-jerking whimsy in which Clarence and Edward (Bill Milner), a 10-year-old boy at loose ends, form an unlikely friendship. Edward is the mopey, rebellious son of Lark Hill's perpetually harried owners (Anne-Marie Duff and David Morrissey). Surrounded by decrepitude and alienated from his parents, who evicted him from his bedroom to take in another boarder, Edward has developed an unhealthy fascination with spiritualism. When a resident seems close to death, the boy is right there with his tape recorder to capture any aural evidence of the soul's ascent into the hereafter.
Their May-December friendship pulls Clarence out of a suicidal funk at just the moment when his mind has begun to slip. Clarence teaches card tricks to his eager protege and even stages a bogus seance to amuse him. Eaten up with guilt about his philandering that destroyed his marriage to his wife, now dead, whom he misses terribly, Clarence also imparts some sad life lessons to the boy. The first serious sign of his mental slippage is a party at which he gives a magic show that goes terribly awry.
Is Anybody There? largely squanders the talents of wonderful veteran actors like Leslie Phillips, Rosemary Harris, Sylvia Syms, and Peter Vaughan, who play Lark Hall residents in varying states of dottiness and physical disrepair, and these cameos are played uncomfortably close to farce. Peter Harness' screenplay, set in 1987, throws in a half-baked subplot in which Edward's father endangers his marriage by lunging pathetically after Lark Hall's 18-year-old housekeeper (Linzey Cocker).
What balances the movie is Mr. Caine's exceptional portrayal of old age as the accumulation of a lifetime's experience. In his performance the child, the youthful rogue and the forgetful codger all live at once.