Film Review: Max Rose

Sad Drama About Death And Regret Adds A Modest Capper To Its Star’s Long Career

Devin D. O'Leary
5 min read
Max Rose
You don’t joke about Dean Martin around Jerry Lewis.
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A good 20 years after his last on-screen appearance, show biz legend Jerry Lewis returns for an elegiac role in the minor key drama Max Rose. The film itself was shelved for three years and not seen in America until its premiere at the Museum of Modern Art as part of a tribute to Mr. Lewis’ 90th birthday. It’s written and directed by a guy named Daniel Noah, who’s mostly been known for producing a handful of low-budget horror films (Toad Road, Cooties, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, The Greasy Strangler). How he lured a talent like Jerry Lewis out of retirement remains something of a mystery. But their collaboration is now doing a small-scale rollout in theaters, giving curious viewers a chance to see just what attracted the aging actor to what is likely to be his final starring role.

Max Rose is, if nothing else, a showcase for its front-and-center star. Lewis plays the titular Max Rose, a long-retired jazz pianist whose beloved wife Eva (respected octogenarian actress Claire Bloom) has just passed away. Having been happily married to the woman for 65 years, Max is now beside himself. He mostly just sits in his living room and stares off into space, unable to even open the door of the bedroom he shared with Eva for so many years. Following the sparsely attended funeral (Who among their friends is still alive?), Max’s granddaughter Annie (Kerry Bishé from AMC’s “Halt and Catch Fire”) moves into the house as a sort of babysitter. Annie’s father (a fine Kevin Pollak) is somewhat estranged from Max, contributing to some further family tension. Putting her life (and her boyfriend) on hold, Annie tries to get Max out of his depressed shell. The problem, of course, is that there’s really no getting past this incident. Pushing 90, Max isn’t exactly going to get out there and start life anew. He’s going to mourn his wife for the rest of his life—which probably isn’t all that long, let’s be honest.

While Max grows increasingly numb and disconnected, we get short flashbacks of his life with Eva. Lewis and Bloom have an easygoing camaraderie and the relationship between their characters seems idyllic. Eventually, Annie cracks through Max’s heartbreak and gets to the root of his problem. Compounding Max’s drastic emotional tumble is the fact that he may have uncovered evidence of a long-ago infidelity on the part of Eva just prior to her death. Despite the fact that it happened more than 50 years ago, Max couldn’t let it go. They were still fighting over it when she passed, leaving far too much unresolved. With Eva now gone, Max is guilty over his still-lingering suspicions.

Eventually, Annie and her father decide it’s time to send Max to an old age home. Thankfully, he befriends some elderly musicians and settles in well. It’s actually a nice place and not some overdramatized hell hole of a facility. But Max still can’t get the past off his mind. For better or worse, and with the assistance of his new pals, Max goes in search of the man who may or may not have stolen his wife’s heart decades ago.

Max Rose is a minimalist film. It deals mostly in the smallest of moments: Max glancing at his wife’s toothbrush sitting in a glass in the bathroom. On that level, it succeeds. To be completely honest, Max Rose has all the makings of a maudlin, made-for-TV melodrama. And in other, lesser hands it would have done nothing but wallow in that atmosphere. But Noah is smart enough to play on both his star’s strengths and frailties. At this stage of the game, Mr. Lewis is battling age and illness. He’s not exactly gonna perform epic pratfalls or recite Shakespeare. Lewis, at least for the first half of the film, has little dialogue. He acts mostly with his facial expressions, and he does an impressive job. Lewis has never been much of a subtle actor, having spent most of his career offering up slapstick comedy. But his few serious turns (Martin Scorsese’s King of Comedy, for example) have been well received. By avoiding long speeches or a lot of movement, Noah allows his lead actor to appear in nearly every shot. The weakness, the vulnerability and the lifetime of regret are palpable. And by crafting a show biz character, somewhat lost in his own vanity and questioning his lifetime of choices, the film blends reality and fiction in a surprisingly touching way.

Max Rose doesn’t hold a lot of major secrets or unexpected twists. It plays out more or less the way you expect it to. The script certainly could have explored some darker aspects to both the character’s depressive mental state and his maybe-not-as-rosey-as-he-thought marriage. But it doesn’t. With this film, we get what we get. Max Rose isn’t going to go down as the greatest film of Jerry Lewis’ career. But it’s a graceful enough footnote at the end to deserve a glance.
Max Rose

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