La Vie du Rose
“Huh? Who?” to the under-fifties here although Légion d’honneur as the “French people’s favorite clown,” Jerry Lewis was The King of Comedy through the 1960s. His annual Labor Day Muscular Dystrophy drive “for my kids” and ubiquitous collection cards -- “You’ll Never Walk Alone” -- long kept him in the public’s TV eye, but the acrimonious breakup with Dean Martin, the sorry end of his Telethon participation, changing tastes, and screen disasters including never-released The Day the Clown Cried, clouded his star. Celebrating The Kid’s ninetieth birthday, last month the Museum of Modern Art offered a rare 35mm retrospective of his work as actor, director and screenwriter. As icing on the birthday cake, MoMA then mixed its world première of Max Rose with Lewis alongside director-writer Daniel Noah in Q&A conducted by curator Dave Kehr.
The not-young sold-out stand-by-line crowd adored the star, showered him with superlatives and with the love he would stress as the essence of his, and any worthwhile movie-making. Noah spoke a bit but Kehr might as well have stayed home. Dismissing him humorously, Lewis took over even while occasionally losing his thread of thought after some minutes of non-stop.
Based on Noah’s late beloved grandparents, the script circulated to good reactions from producers who were nevertheless unwilling to invest in a cinema treatment of senior citizens, until Lawrence Inglee and Garrett Kelleher took the chance. The director had no hopes of landing first-choice retired Lewis but got a surprising affirmative answer through Lewis’ Vegas office, just as on the screen the star’s Max Rose contacts Ben Tracey (Dean Stockwell) by a coincidental roundabout path.
Lewis’ off-the-top-of-his-head favorite among his own is The Nutty Professor, but, no shrinking violet, he values all his work, even those labeled mawkish, egocentric and unfunny. Repeatedly he referred to film as a collaborative, rather than auteur effort and stressed the need for love among all involved, including the audience to whom the result must be sold.
Still brash and constantly on-camera, the new nonagenarian played much on his loss of hearing, diminished vision and, not like those fake film falls of half-a-century back, today’s real stumbles that necessitate walking with a cane.
The plotline takes advantage of, and plays on, the bodily, cognitive and emotional lapses that dog golden agers On Golden Pond. It starts here with the death of Eva (Claire Bloom), Max’s wife of sixty-five years. The eighty-seven-year-old widower and retired jazz musician had never ever strayed but, aside from depression and the overpowering awareness of loss and being lost, suffers the too-late blues of having failed her and their marriage.
He is fussed over by fifth-grade-teacher granddaughter Annie (Kerry Bishé), who stays nearby and does not join her other half in his new position with the Chicago Philharmonic. He is strained with his son, her father Chris (Kevin Pollak), single-parenting once more after a sour second marriage and on eggshells with Max.
Eva appears to him in flashbacks, notably in pillow talk in the upstairs bedroom he dare not enter alone. Her charcoal drawings of people are everywhere, and in going through the dead woman’s effects he comes across a compact with a hidden engraving of love from another man, dated November 5, 1959. Annie objects that there exist untold possibilities, among which his interpretation is surely wrong, but the man and maybe infidelity grow into unhealthy obsession.
Bereaved, and bereft of the house co-deed signer Chris has sold to help pay assisted-living-facility bills, Max emerges from his shell a little thanks to the joyous company of jazz- and woman-loving fellow retirement residents Walter, Lee and Jack (Rance Howard, Lee Weaver, Mort Sahl).
Having tracked his doubts to a Hollywood success more ill and frustrated than he, Max can mend family bridges and limp into the blinding light of acceptance or perhaps of beyond this mortal coil.
This rare appreciation of age and ageing, of loss, and of lost and found and of love, ends in schmaltz. But there is nothing always bad in that, after a film career and a life with regrets too few to mention because I did it my way. The cantankerousness of age is not so when one has long been that way and, as the main man of the hour put it while expressing doubt about the final infinitive, “Stay with your dream. Don’t allow anyone to negativize.”
(Released by Paladin; not rated by MPAA.)