If the world really needed yet another film about an unconventional, mutually enlightening relationship between a crotchety old person and a troubled young person, it could probably do worse than the fitfully well-managed Is Anybody There? But that’s an extremely big if. Like any story based in a wholly stock plot convention, Is Anybody There? spends a good deal of its runtime struggling to justify its existence, which it almost does via a quality cast anchored by Bill Milner, the scrappy kid from Son Of Rambow. But the script is always shakier than the performers trying to bring it across, and by the third act, it lets them down completely.
Michael Caine plays a cranky ex-magician newly consigned to a retirement home run by Milner’s parents, who took the place over to escape bankruptcy; while Milner’s mom (Anne-Marie Duff) tries to make the best of things and his dad (David Morrissey) endures a mid-life crisis and awkwardly pursues a self-centered younger worker at the home, Milner pouts and frets and throws tantrums, but eventually butts up against Caine. Naturally, neither of them wants a friend—Milner is morbidly obsessed with death and the spirit world, while Caine is agonizing over the loss of his wife, and both of them cling to their solitude until each turns out to be what the other needs. There’s a lot of low-key, funny banter and improbable charm to their rapprochement, as Caine takes a mild interest in pushing Milner toward less ghoulish pursuits, and Milner doggedly tries to track ghosts with the best clunky technology the rural-England ’80s setting has to offer.
But from the beginning, Milner’s belligerent nastiness makes it hard to root for his redemption, and his skirt-chasing dad isn’t much better. Caine, an old-school professional who could tackle most of this role in his sleep, brings across his world-weariness and grief well enough, but when his character starts veering in and out of senility on cue, in sync with the plot’s need for minor drama, his character becomes cartoonish. There’s a lot of inherent sentiment and pathos in the oldster/youngster friendship dynamic, and a little ambition in the story, which pokes fitfully at the big questions of life and death, youth and age, past and future. But director John Crowley seems far too willing to settle for cute-and-passable, when he should be fighting to distinguish his story from a crowded field of look-alikes.