A classic rendition of old meeting young, Is Anybody There? wishes to disperse and diversify the conversation around ageism. Wishing to do something and actually doing it are two different opportunities, and while John Crowley’s heart is in the right place, his head is elsewhere. He has not switched on as best he can, but he never did for Intermission and did not do so with his big break, Brooklyn, either. His collaboration with Michael Caine should offer up something of value, Caine has that ability, but it is not utilised here. Instead, Is Anybody There? does what most dramas do. Nothing much at all.
Cutting into Christmas with the retirement home family so suddenly, Is Anybody There? relies upon those awkward family gatherings and the inescapable suffocation that comes with them. Loud noises, a family out of synchronisation is found. It is not a generational gap, although we can perceive it as one if we try hard enough. The youth are bored of the old and tender, and as they die the concerns of the newly born are through whether they can have their old room back, rather than the tragedy of fleeting lives coming to a close. It is rather barbaric, and it makes it rather impossible to connect with Edward (Bill Milner), who does not care for his relatives, nor those around him. He is an island, but that island is small, and soon finds itself floating toward that of a mysterious magician, Clarence (Caine).
With Caine turning on the waterworks, it is hard not to engage with him to some degree. Clarence is isolated in his tender, elderly state. His relationship with Edward gets off on the wrong foot. He feels bullied, dejected and removed from his real life, and it probably doesn’t help that a child is, quite literally, throwing dirt at him and reminding him that he’ll die in the bed he bought in this shoddy retirement home. Milner is a whining bore. This performance does not do his talents justice. Instead, he is shown to be a relatively infantile fool who abuses the elderly because he is jealous of their attention and the simplicity of their life. Throwing tender notes of suicide and life with one foot in the grave, you would think Crowley has the narrative strengths to withstand such scrutable tones.
He does not. Instead, Is Anybody There? is a fumbling piece that wishes to believe life is a prime cut of excitement for the elderly and their master manipulators, children who are bored of living their lives in a retirement house. Often, we can care for the elderly on-screen because we as a thriving, emotionally intact audience, can relate these experiences and feelings to those of our loved ones. Not here, though, and that is the biggest loss for Crowley, who replaces it with off-hand attempts at elder abuse and tantrum-like fits of rage. Neither gel together all that well, and even when Caine turns on the charm and pushes through as a likeable lead with no time left to kill.