After 65 years of marriage, Max Rose’s wife Eva has died. Her loss has left him a ruined husk of a man. His granddaughter Annie does her best to take care of him, bringing him his meals, watching old movies with him, reading corny jokes. But the loss is too much. At her funeral, he eulogizes his failures and shortcomings, humiliating himself until Annie gently yet firmly makes him sit back down. He sees ghosts and shadows in the house they once shared together—memories of when they were younger and happier. But Max is haunted by more than just her death. He has discovered that nearly fifty years earlier she had an affair. Their marriage isn’t just over, it was predicated on a lie. And this lie looks like it will swallow him whole.
Daniel Noah’s Max Rose is a sobering, powerful examination of grief and loss made essential by the casting of 87-year old Jerry Lewis as the titular character. Let us be honest: the law of averages suggests that he will not be with us much longer. Hopefully, he may come out of retirement once again for a few more projects. But regardless, Max Rose will almost certainly be seen as his cinematic swan song. The parallels aren’t difficult to see: Max is a retired musician (read: entertainer) largely forgotten by society. In many ways, his grief over Eva can be interpreted as a metaphor for his lost career. I suspect many other critics will latch onto that angle for the inevitable Lewis retrospectives.
But I’m more interested in Noah’s depiction of Max’s healing process. The first third is easily the best. Noah takes an almost cubist approach to his misery, cutting between present day scenes and flashbacks with little to no connective tissue. Cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt, the man who shot Kelly Reichardt’s outstanding Meek’s Cutoff (2010), does an excellent job visually expressing his grief. Watch how he tends to isolate Max in the nooks and crannies of static long shots, making him seem detached and removed even while with his relatives. The second third officially begins his recovery as he moves to a nursing home. He gradually makes friends with the other old crocks who spend their days reminiscing about the past. I was nervous at first that the film would continue the tradition of depicting nursing homes as unfeeling prisons where seniors are locked up and babied until they die. But that isn’t the case; he finds genuine support and enthusiastic care.
The third act is where the film flounders. Max’s reconciliation with his estranged son Christopher (Kevin Pollak) feels somewhat hollow; his confrontation with the man Eva had an affair with seems contrived and predetermined. It eventually leads to a great anti-climax with an ambiguous open ending. It feels an unfitting conclusion to what could be the last film by one of the greatest actors and comedians to ever live. Where’s the equivalent of Judy Garland’s show-stopping finale from Ronald Neame’s I Could Go On Singing (1963)? John Wayne’s heroic sacrifice in Don Siegel’s The Shootist (1976)? Still, Lewis delivers a disarmingly powerful performance. And when the film works, it’s superb.