Two ghosts haunt Daniel Noah’s Max Rose. First there’s the ghost of Eva (Claire Bloom), who lingers in her husband Max’s (Jerry Lewis) memories after her death, which ended a marriage of 65 years. Max is understandably devastated by this loss; as he says at Eva’s funeral, he can’t remember not being married to her. Max also confesses that he believes his marriage was a failure, an extension of his failure as a pianist, father, and, implicitly, as a cumulative human being. Pushing 90, he’s eying the figurative exit door, and he doesn’t like what he sees when he looks back at the life he lived. Eva’s death has cast shadows on memories that might otherwise be joyful, and these shadows emphasize an artifact: a makeup compact with an inscription inside that may reveal that Eva was once unfaithful.
The other ghost is the weight of the memory of Lewis’s legend-hood, which is shrewdly utilized by Noah and the actor to magnify the autumnal aura that envelopes the film. It’s difficult to hear Max allude to his music and not think of Lewis’s stratospheric stardom with Dean Martin, his incalculably influential rise as an underappreciated auteur, the tall tales about his life, and his performance in Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy. Not much is said about Max’s career as a pianist, which apparently didn’t go far, but this detail establishes the character as a universally tormented artist, which parallels Lewis’s own past. Related to this resonance is the pathos that’s inherent in watching any performer wrestle with the humbling, terrifying process of aging.
Lewis, though, doesn’t lean on his legacy as a crutch, allowing it do his acting for him. He’s quite good in Max Rose, evincing throughout the same richly curt sense of timing that charged his brilliant turn in The King of Comedy. Lewis doesn’t render his character a cute old dear, one of those condescendingly harmless old codgers who frequently pop up in coming-of-age stories. Max is bitter and in considerable pain, and Lewis and Noah honor the fact that suffering people often hurt those within their closest proximity.
Max Rose is formulaic, as it’s about a man squaring things with his family before he shuffles off this mortal coil, but it has a creepy undertow intensified by Lewis’s unsentimental performance. Certain scenes exist for their own reasons, divorced from a narrative that offers closure but little empowerment, and one wishes that Noah had further pursued these tangents. A scene between Lewis and Dean Stockwell is a strange marvel, in which two aging men project their worst nightmares onto one another and achieve catharsis. The emotional effect of this moment is exacerbated by the presence of Stockwell, who, like Lewis, embraces the material for its ravaged lion-in-winter nuances. Noah also captures the stifling yet comforting strictures of a retirement home, which trades in sameness as a reassuring cocoon that’s meant to distract its inhabitants from the looming conclusion of death.
Significantly constraining the film, though, is Noah’s imagining of Max’s remaining family, who’re played by Kerry Bishé and Kevin Pollak with a dutifulness that doesn’t transcend the thanklessness of the roles as signifiers of another, more interesting character’s evolution. Max’s family embodies the routine elements that limit Max Rose, which occasionally and promisingly suggests an obsessive and free-associative paean to regret.