Director: Daniel Noah
Stars: Jerry Lewis, Kerry Bishé
2 (out of 5) Globes
Can a movie be both generic and unique? “Max Rose” is a grief drama (and a bit of a part-time comedy) about deeply personal loss that hits a lot of familiar notes. But it has an ace up its sleeve: It stars Jerry Lewis. When we first see him, Lewis’ Max — a retired pianist whose wife of 65 years (Claire Bloom, seen in wistful flashbacks) has just passed — isn’t happy. In fact, he looks a lot like Lewis’ Jerry Langford, the self-hating king of late-night TV from “King of Comedy.” He’s pissed — pissed that his longtime companion is gone, pissed that he still feels he failed her and himself, pissed that his son (Kevin Pollak) and granddaughter (Kerry Bishé) won’t stop doting on him and let him wallow in his misery.
“Max Rose” will follow him as he achieves some semblance of closure and even transcendence, because of course it does. Yes, he will learn to open up, get out of the house, even bro down with a group of old-timers whose ranks include Mort Sahl (!!). Yes, he will make eventual amends with a son used to the coldest of shoulders. Daniel Noah’s movie will lunge for brutal honesty, about life and love, about insecurities and mortality — only to routinely fall back on the maudlin, including a part where Pollak’s snubbed scion tells Max “I love you” at least as many times as Robin Williams once told Matt Damon “It’s not your fault.”
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And yet every time “Max Rose” falters, which is often, it can always defer to the man almost always on screen. Lewis has his share of po-faced turns, but this is not the Serious Jerry of “King of Comedy” or “Funny Bones” — narcissistic monsters who look at life with disdain and people as leeches. Max is a well-rounded character, alternately remote and alive. You can even see within him the same man-child who makes funny mouth noises, waiting to spring forth from this sadsack who never made it as a pianist but did get the girl of his dreams.
Characters routinely call Max out for being stubborn, but this is no garden variety stick in the mud. This is Jerry Lewis — the madman with a probably justifiable god complex, the box office titan who became a joke about French people, the moth-ridden legend who will still crow that women aren’t funny. His baggage weighs down his every move, and it’s thrilling to watch him work, and not just because it’s Jerry Lewis. You never know where he’ll go in a scene, when he’ll suddenly break from his granite stone of self-pity and come alive, whether he’s berating loved ones or suddenly enjoying life. It’s a movie that’s impossible to imagine with anyone else. But you don’t have to imagine. Jerry Lewis is right there, all over “Max Rose,” making the banal not only profound but uniquely Jerry Lewis.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge