Still and silent, Jerry Lewis slumps there like old furniture in the lifeless house in which the first half of Daniel Noah’s coming-of-old-age drama Max Rose molders. The film is a fiction, a tidy and improbable one, but these scenes have documentary power. Lewis' Max Rose, recently bereaved, sits and stares at nothing in particular, which affords us a rare opportunity to regard Lewis himself: Has this livest of live wires ever been so still onscreen? So resigned? His character's mind, I'm sorry to say, reels between past and present, from sitting there silently in the now, to hearing his late wife carp that Kurt Vonnegut — who is chattering on Charlie Rose in a flashback — is a “horse's ass.”
The wife, Eva, is played by Claire Bloom, another welcome and fascinating presence, but the scenes she and Lewis share are quick and corny, memories in which the longtime couple exults in being a longtime couple, feeling just one thing at a time. It's easy to wish that at least one shot of this montage would keep playing after Noah called “Cut!” and that we could behold Lewis and Bloom together, on the set, talking about whatever they would talk about.
But there's a tale to tell, one about a man coming to terms with what he's lost. The film's second half, unfortunately, puts Max into action, giving him new friends, a mystery to solve and ultimately — no matter how much you might plead for this not to happen — a white light to stride beatifically toward. In his stupor, he discovers evidence that Eva might have had an affair in 1959, right around the time that Max, a jazz pianist who never really made it, flamed out at a recording session for Riverside. This rouses him, and the final scenes offer unconvincing revelations, reassurances and reconciliations.
Occasionally, Noah, who wrote and directed, hits onto something that feels like life. We witness the funeral of Bloom's character, where Max gives a brooding, self-flagellating speech about how he wasn't the man she thought he was. Noah, curiously, shoots this at a great remove, from the rear of the mortuary, with Lewis a speck in the upper center of the screen. Like the mourners in the story, we listen and squint and wonder. Noah's framing often emphasizes Max's isolation: He'll be in the center of the screen, but in mid and wide shots, surrounded by a lifetime's accumulation of furniture and records. In the apple-red sweater he sports for much of the film he's sometimes like the fruit in a still life, not dominant, just there.
Lewis does dominate, of course, and not just because of our history with him or our eagerness to wonder what thoughts roil behind that visage. Max is sweet and smiling, sometimes, with granddaughter Annie (Kerry Bishé), who tells him jokes written by fifth graders; he snaps without pity at son Chris (Kevin Pollak) in scenes more convincing and compelling than all the sweet ones. In them, Lewis is prickly, unpredictable — Lewis. Best of all is a party between Max and some other old men he meets in assisted living. They dance to big band music, pretend to be playing the instruments, and Max even yawps some silly sounds — for a breath, he's the protean pip-squeak punk who, bleating “The Navy Gets the Gravy but the Army Gets the Beans,” once tore our culture a new asshole.