Director: Daniel Noah
Cast: Jerry Lewis, Kerry Bishé, Kevin Pollak, Dean Stockwell, Lee Weaver, Illeana Douglas, Fred Willard, Rance Howard, Claire Bloom
Running Time: 1:23
Release Date: 9/2/16 (limited); 9/16/16 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | September 15, 2016
The central dramatic question of Max Rose regards a secret. It's one that has been kept by one spouse from another for more than 60 years. It only comes to light after the secret-keeper no longer has a say in the matter. It has to do with marital infidelity.
The truth behind that secret only has two potential outcomes: Either the worst fears of the spouse who learns of the secret are true, or they are not. Either this man's wife did indeed have a relationship with another man in the early part of their marriage, or she did not. That is, really, the only question of worth here, because that's the way the screenplay by director Daniel Noah frames the narrative.
The secondary drama is, to an extent, how Max Rose (Jerry Lewis), who finds himself a widower at the age of 87, reacts to the possibility of his wife having had an affair. There's the jealousy. There's the feeling of being betrayed by someone with whom he spent the majority of his life. There's the doubt that his life before this moment actually meant anything.
This essentially means that the entirety of the movie's dramatic weight rests on Lewis' performance—his first starring role in over 20 years. He is more than up to the task, imbuing Max with a sense that his emotional, psychological, and physical weariness (to a lesser extent on the last one, given the actor and the character's ages) is a sudden, unexpected development.
Because of what has happened and what he thinks he has learned, Max now may be the shell of a man—as well as a husband, a father, a grandfather, and a performer. In Lewis' take on the character, though, we can sense the spirit of the character before this moment in time. That's vital, because, otherwise, there's really no reason to care about the answer to a dramatic question that might as well come down to a coin toss on Noah's part.
Max spends most of the movie dawdling around his now-empty home and, later, a senior care facility, looking into his wife's possessions and searching his memories for clues about the other man who may have had her heart at one point in their marriage. He has imagined conversations with his deceased wife Eva (Claire Bloom) and recalls his final hours with her.
Meanwhile, he has real conversations with his loyal granddaughter Annie (Kerry Bishé), a grade school teacher who has put a romantic relationship on hold because of work and—although she won't admit it—because she wants to help her grandfather. After Max discovers that Eva's favorite makeup compact bears a sentimental inscription from another man, he becomes obsessed with finding the truth behind the words.
There isn't much more to Noah's screenplay, which at first is mum about the reason Max declares himself, as well as his marriage and his life, a "failure" during his eulogy (which Noah shoots entirely from the back of the room, in a striking and counterintuitive stylistic choice that ultimately deprives Max of a key moment of catharsis). Once the possible affair is revealed, though, one keeps expecting something more—something about Max that goes deeper than his turmoil over Eva's possible affair.
We learn that he was a jazz pianist a long time ago and that he quit from performing professionally after a bad concert. We learn Max's relationship with his son Christopher (Kevin Pollak) is strained after decades of Max making it quite clear that he's disappointed with his son's choices, although the specifics are hazy. That makes a scene near the end of the movie, in which the roles of who is seeking acceptance from whom are reversed, feel like an attempt to raise an argument where there is none.
The whole movie possesses that sense of forced conflict. Because Max's ultimate feelings on his wife and, indeed, his life are entirely dependent upon the answer to Eva's gift from the other man, there's little to do but to wait with a certain degree of impatience for the resolution.
A few scenes involving Max trying to start a new life in his twilight years at the care facility are effective, especially when one man says how he still misses his wife of 50-odd years, who died about 20 years ago, every day. There's a brief look on Lewis' face in that moment, as if Max is doing the math of how much worse his pain will be. The relationship between Max and Annie is also touching in the way it allows us to see a cheerier, less despondent view of Max. When they share bad puns and she puts on a cheesy pantomime show for him, that's a glimpse of what the real Max—before this confusion began—must have been like.
The relationships, personal histories, and underlying conflicts that exist between the lines of the central dilemma of Max Rose suggest something deeper, but the focus remains tightly on the question about Eva's loyalty (Dean Stockwell appears in the climactic scene to provide the answer). The stakes of the premise simply aren't enough to carry this story.
Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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