It’s one of the best ideas for a movie, if not the best: The same 14-or-so Brits (and one Aussie) are visited every seven years, starting at age 7. Watched one by one — starting with 1964’s “Seven Up!” — the so-called “Up Series” can be like reconnecting with old friends. Downed in one quick block, it’s cosmic: You watch as cute kids become shy teens, angry twentysomethings, frustrated thirtysomethings, angry fortysomethings and now reasonably mellow fiftysomethings.
A fairly decent chunk of the mysteries of life can be found in these eight films, all without the filmmakers really trying. A documentarian who moonlights as a big time Hollywood director (“The World is Not Enough,” last year’s “Chasing Mavericks”), Michael Apted has been helming the series since the second film. (He was a researcher on the first.) In each installment, he asks the same basic questions: what’s new, how’s life, how’s the family (provided they exist) and so on.
“49 Up” was the film where even the more cooperative cast members — and not everyone always returns, though the gang’s nearly all here in “56” — rebelled against Apted and the reality TV-level fame foisted upon them. But 56 is a deep age and, the odd health problems aside, most of the cast are about the same as seven years prior — or failing that, at least stable. Even painfully smart Neil, who wound up homeless around “28 Up,” has eked out some form of a life, if barely.
The lack of fireworks means one’s position on the “Up” series is confirmed or challenged, or both. Are Apted’s questions lame? Should he have long ago driven it in more specific directions? Or is the staid formula — basic catch-up questions, then onto the next person — perfect, since it allows more themes and ideas to arise organically out of the narratives? Even those of us who believe the latter have to admit it could stand some tinkering — perhaps delving into, say, the class system with which the films originally began. Or perhaps our era of reality TV and viral oversharing has made the “Up” films seem too short and cursory. Not everyone in “56 Up” is interesting, and yet Apted’s style of shuffling from one person to the next, sometimes right as they’re getting interesting, can leave one hungry for more. (4 out of 5 Globes)