To most people these days, Jerry Lewis is more a punchline than a comedian. His Nutty Professor is all but superseded by Eddie Murphy's version, and lives on mostly through Professor Frink, the Simpsons character he inspired. Aside from a bit part and some voice work, he's been pretty much retired since 1995's Funny Bones. So it's a bit of a surprise to see him show up in a leading role now, half a year past his 90th birthday. But rest assured, Max Rose is not built around stunt casting. Lewis is as sharp as ever, and a joy to watch in the title role.
Lewis may have made his name as a comedian, but here we see him under dimmer lighting in a wonderfully melancholy character study. As we open, Max Rose is reeling from the death of his wife, Eva (Claire Bloom, in his memories), after 65 years together. Speaking at her wake, he declares himself a failure, shocking his son, Christopher (Kevin Pollak), and granddaughter, Annie (Kerry Bishé).
Annie thinks it must be about his never-terribly-successful career as a jazz pianist, but that's not it. He shows her Eva's compact, with an inscription below the pad: "Eva, You are the secret in my heart. Ben 11-5-59". He'd discovered it before she died, but she wouldn't explain another man's name on a piece she'd treasured, with a date well into their relationship. Max's marriage had sustained him through professional disappointment, and now it was all thrown into question.
Loneliness and isolation are never helpful for depression, and they seem to go along with aging. Live long enough and you'll see everyone you knew die off. But Max can't live on his own for long; deep in his mourning, Christopher and Annie move him into an assisted living facility. This sort of move is often depicted as warehousing someone until they die, and it may well feel like that to Max at first. But slowly he starts to come out of his shell, and strikes up a friendship with a group of other old jazz musicians (Lee Weaver, Mort Sahl, and Rance Howard).
Max Rose may not be a comedy, but it's not without humor. Lewis and Bishé display a genuine warmth and affection as grandfather and granddaughter. Max and Annie exchange jokes in a way that it's clear they've done since her childhood. Meanwhile, his relationship with his divorced son is far more strained. And of course we know the story must eventually loop back to the truth about Eva and the mysterious Ben.
Lewis is no joke, and far from the cross-eyed dweeb most people today are likely to remember. If they remember him at all, that is, as well they should. Up and down, from Annie to Christopher, from Max's new friends to his late wife, Lewis acts rings around pros half his age. If you're a fan of his classic work, you'll love seeing his range. If you're not already familiar, there's no better place to start.
Rating: 4 out of 5