Max Rose marks Jerry Lewis’ first starring role in a film in about 20 years. It tells the story of the eponymous character, an 87-year-old former jazz pianist whose wife has recently died. While going through her belongings, he finds evidence of a possible relationship his wife had with another man.
This is the material of a somber drama, but the film never quite arrives there. This is mostly because first time director Daniel Noah’s script is rather banal and trite. The film’s insights into marriage are sketched out in a series of flashbacks of Max with his wife, Eva (Claire Bloom), which are simply clichés of what a long-term companionship consists of. There’s nothing unique at all about their interactions, or about their conception. The film also throws in Max’s relationship with his son Christopher (Kevin Pollak) and his granddaughter Annie (Kerry Bishé). The former has some sharp moments; primarily, a tense, awkward scene where Max refuses to say “I love you” to Christopher. The latter is downright maudlin and has Bishé be reduced to putting on a clown nose and trying to get Max to smile. Noah’s staging is also flat and usually cut up into a series of unnecessary reaction shots which betray a lack of visual imagination (the film’s final shot is a catastrophe). The lighting at points reminds of a bad TV movie.
But Max Rose features Jerry Lewis, a magnetic performer who cuts across the dross around him with his slight frame. The film is often schmaltzy, but Jerry Lewis holds the screen with gravitas, at points angry, broken and bitter. This is territory that Lewis often mined in his own films, and his performance in those largely informs his work in Max Rose. There’s a melancholy strain to many of Lewis’ performances, still and defeated at points, which the film tries to get at. None of the usual tics associated with Lewis are present here: no stammers, no high pitched squeals, no ridiculously complex verbal gymnastics. Most of the interest here is simply watching Lewis work with lesser material, still trying to get at truth.
But Noah does himself no favors when he repurposes Lewis’ song from Cinderfella, “Somebody,” to an important character moment. It adds a strange meta gesture to a film that doesn’t need one. This is because no matter what the character might be named, it’s always Jerry Lewis on screen, as in the end of The Patsy. Lewis will always wear his rings, his collection of clothes that could only be his, and he will always be himself. Noah seems to understand this most of the time, as part of the interest of the film is simply documentary: what does Jerry Lewis move and sound like at 87 years old? This is the only real weapon he has in his arsenal, and it makes the project one worth spending time with for Lewis fans.
However, while watching Max Rose, I often wished the filmmaker responsible for Cracking Up were the one behind the scenes. This is largely impersonal filmmaking, bereft of the crackling energy (the emulsion!) which so often animated Lewis’ greatest projects.
Max Rose opens Friday, September 16 at the Sundance Cinemas.