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    Max Rose Disappoints

    GaryKramerbyRyanBrandenbergJerry Lewis stars as the title character in Max Rose, a 2013 drama just getting a theatrical release now. The film, which opens September 16, did not sit on the shelf for three years because it is so good. Lewis may have made his career as a comedian, but he does great in dramas like The King of Comedy, and Funny Bones. Max Rose, however, does not match the levels of those films.

    But it could have. Writer/director Daniel Noah casts Lewis as a widower, grieving over the death of his wife Eva (Claire Bloom, seen in flashback). His adult son Chris (Kevin Pollak), tries to care for him, but they have a chilly relationship. He is much closer to his granddaughter Annie (Kerry Bishé), who sees Max as a reason to stay in Los Angeles and not move to Chicago, where her boyfriend Scott is living.

    Max Rose consists of a series of awkward scenes that prompt Lewis to express exasperation with his eyes. Annie tries to amuse Max with her comedy skills, and Chris brings his father DVDs to watch, unaware that his father does not have a DVD player. Viewers will be exasperated as well.

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    Max mostly wants to be left alone. He is conflicted about his thoughts towards his late wife, as is clear in the eulogy he gives where he explains their 65-year relationship was a lie. He holds on dearly to her compact, which includes an inscription from a man who loved her back in 1959. Max, a one-hit wonder on the piano, was recording his music on the night his wife was off having an affair with Ben (Dean Stockwell), the gifter of the compact.

    Max Rose eventually has Max confront Ben so he can get a sense of closure about the affair. But first, Max is sent off to a retirement home where Chris feels he can receive better care and be less of a burden. Max is frustrated by the suggestions of senior center’s counselor Ms. Flowers (Illeana Douglas), who wants him to take up cooking, attend a book club, or help with the music program. At the home, Max is bored by the activities, such as knitting potholders in the shape of kidneys, and viewers will be as bored as Max watching Lewis listen to a harpist perform, or knit kidney-shaped potholders.

    There are some nice moments in the senior center as Max bonds with some other men in the home, including Walter (Rance Howard), the feisty Lee (Lee Weaver), and Jack (Mort Sahl). But scenes of the men talking about their loss and aging, while de rigueur in films set in retirement communities, do not provide much character insight. An improvised jazz session the men have (without instruments) offers one of the less painful moments in Max Rose.

    The film is not just syrupy; it lacks a strong dramatic tension. Most of the “action” consists of Max reacting to how other people want to handle him. When he finally becomes an agent of his own destiny, tracking down Ben and confronting him about his affair with Eva, there might have been some crackle to this lackluster film. However, what transpires between Max and Ben is a nearly toothless exchange that emphasizes the film’s preachy messages about forgiveness.

    Noah peppers his film with positive life lessons about finding happiness and a value in life that stick in the throat because the characters, even the chipper Annie, are either miserable or unlikable. The fact that the iciness between Max and Christopher is neatly tied up by the film’s end seems more contrived than believable, and when Max gives some parting advice to Annie, her tears seem unearned. So much of Max Rose feels phony.

    Lewis’ performance is too prickly. What makes Lewis great in dramatic roles is that he can be so truculent. While he does this well using silence or some forced facial expressions to convey what he is feeling inside, there is not much to his performance beyond his body language. His character may be a curmudgeon, but Max is selfish when he should be sympathetic.

    In support, Kerry Bishé and Kevin Pollak are given thankless, underwritten roles, and in her brief appearances, Claire Bloom laughs a lot, which may be why Max loved her.

    But it is hard to love Max Rose. Noah wants to make an affecting drama about a man who lived a life he didn’t find much value in. Instead, he made a film that has very little value.

    © 2016 Gary M. Kramer

    Gary M. Kramer is the author of “Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews,” and the co-editor of “Directory of World Cinema: Argentina.” Follow him on Twitter @garymkramer