Jerry Lewis turned 90 in March. Many fans, me included, wished hard to see this legendary comedian and virtuoso filmmaker cut loose on screen one more time. Max Rose doesn’t grant that wish. For starters, his first film in 20 years is not a comedy — it’s a sober, sad-eyed study of an old man on the ropes. Max, a former jazz pianist who never quite made it, sits alone in a house haunted by memories, mostly of his wife Eva (the great Claire Bloom) who has just died. At her funeral, his eulogy is tortured, self-loathing. At home, Max finds solace in visits from granddaughter Annie (Kerry Bishé), who dreads telling him she may be pulling up stakes to live with her boyfriend. That leaves Chris (a very fine Kevin Pollak), the son Max renounced for giving up on his first marriage and neglecting Annie.
To further goose the plot, writer-director Daniel Noah, who loosely based the script on his own grandparents, has contrived a catharsis for Max in the form of one of Eva’s possessions, a makeup compact with an inscription that indicates Eva may have been in love with another man. That gives Max a mission — to find this man, sharply played by Dean Stockwell — and learn the truth.
It’s a shallow, melodramatic device that would sink most actors. But Lewis is not most actors. In fact, despite age and illness, he remains a mesmerizing star in front of the camera, compelling to watch even (and especially) when sitting perfectly still. There’s none of that cutesy codger stuff that manipulates an audience and demands, “love me!” The only comic relief comes in a terrific scene involving Max and a few fellow retirees (nicely played by Mort Sahl, Lee Weaver and Rance Howard) as they listen to jazz and pretend to play instruments, which lets Lewis show off his still vibrant gift for pantomime.
It’s too bad the film, in its rush to slap on a smile on a tale of regret, doesn’t match the rigor of Lewis’ no-bull performance. As an actor and filmmaker, Lewis hit a peak with 1963’s The Nutty Professor, a film that tinged its laughs with darkness. Lewis did the same thing working with Martin Scorsese in 1983’s The King of Comedy, displaying acting chops that should have won him an Oscar if the Academy didn’t so often ignore the grieving heart in its clowns. Max Rose might not be up to Lewis, but he gives it everything he’’ got in a quietly devastating performance. You can’t take our eyes off him.