Jerry Lewis, absent from the big screen for twenty years except for archival footage, re-emerged earlier this year in a cameo role in the Nicolas Cage-Elijah Wood heist movie, “The Trust,” but he takes center stage in the title role of Daniel Noah’s mawkish melodrama, which proves a major mistake for the star and everybody else involved in the misguided project. The title character may bear a surname recalling a sweet-smelling flower, but the odor coming from the screen is of an entirely different kind.
Octogenarian Max Rose is a onetime jazz pianist of modest reputation, crushed by the recent death of Eva (Claire Bloom), his wife of sixty-five years. Estranged from his son Chris (Kevin Pollak) but beloved of his grown granddaughter Annie (Kerry Bishe), Max soon finds another reason to grieve when he discovers that his late wife’s cherished compact bears an inscription from a man named Ben, dated on the precise November day in 1959 when he was away in New York for a recording session that turned out to be less than successful.
The revelation eats at Max, causing him to deliver an acerbic, self-loathing eulogy at Eva’s funeral service and to try to identify Ben even after Chris moves him into an assisted living center. There he meets some guys his age—played by Mort Sahl, Rance Howard and Lee Weaver—who commiserate with him about the problems they all share and become the pals he needs at nighttime party sessions. They also help him to locate Ben (Dean Stockwell), who turns out to a broken-down Hollywood producer for whom Eva was merely the long-desired woman with whom he was never able to achieve more than a professional relationship as a customer for her artwork. So Max realizes that his wife had never been unfaithful to him, and that realization encourages him to reach an accommodation with their son as well.
Throughout this tepid scenario, Noah moves things along at a turgid pace while Lewis contributes a maddening succession of grimaces intended to convey deep anguish, which cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt focuses on to deadening effect. Noah does Lewis absolutely no favors by allowing every wince and tightening of the jaw to be lingered on as though it were deeply revealing; they come across as the same sort of mugging he used to do, but what works in slapstick is disastrous in drama.
The scenes the octogenarian actor plays with others—especially Pollak and Bishe, who are far too deferential to him, but also Bloom, who appears periodically in ghostly visions to rile him even more—are little better than those in which he’s shown suffering on his own. There’s a bit more energy in the sequences he shares with Howard, Sahl and Weaver, simply because it’s amusing to see a bunch of old codgers act up, as they do in response to some whiskey and a jazz record one night, but the culminating meeting with Stockwell’s infirm, ill-tempered producer is the nadir, an attempt at quirky moodiness that just comes across as perversely strange.
Even on the technical side “Max Rose” is a letdown, with the drab cinematography by Blauvelt helped not at all by a piano-dominated score by veteran Michel Legrand that comes across as a shameless attempt to tug at the heartstrings.
But the entire movie can be characterized that way. It’s far better to remember Lewis in his madcap heyday—as a montage of old clips at the end allows you to do—than to associate him with this maudlin wallow in geriatric grief.