Jerry Lewis shines as unsentimental widower in ‘Max Rose’

More than three years after it premiered at Cannes, “Max Rose” is finally playing U.S. theaters. To say it was worth the wait is an understatement of significant proportions.

Writer-director Daniel Noah’s wonderfully unpretentious portrait of an octogenarian hung up between the past and the present is a small gem of insightful humanism. Jerry Lewis’ unfussy and unsentimental lead performance as a man inclined to both self-awareness and self-pity is endlessly engaging, if not quite Oscar-worthy.

Lewis as the title character in “Max Rose.”

It’s understandable why this warm, sensitive showcase for Lewis’ talents would debut in France, where Lewis was much loved in the 1960s. There’s no reasonable explanation, however, for the delay in U.S. distribution. Nor should one count on a long run at the Opera Plaza Cinemas in San Francisco or the Albany Twin in Berkeley, where “Max Rose” opens on Friday, Sept. 16.

Love him or loathe him, Lewis, who turned 90 in March and hadn’t made a film since 1995, isn’t what you’d call a box-office draw these days, even if the critics garland this performance with raves.

Any plot summary of “Max Rose” is bound to be depressing, so you’ll just have to take my word that the 2013 film effortlessly avoids both gritty realism and Hallmark treacle. It isn’t a social-issue treatise or a family-reconciliation drama, but an internalized character study.

Max’s wife of 65 years has just passed away, and he’s grieving and somewhat disoriented. He’s anything but infirm, mind you, but Max does lapse into occasional conversations with his dear, departed Eva (Claire Bloom).

He becomes obsessed with an engraved compact, given to her by an unknown admirer back in 1959. Did Eva have a lover? It’s a movie requirement that the mystery be resolved, but the answer — delivered definitively, though I think it’s what Max wants to hear rather than the truth — is somewhat beside the point.

That’s because we’re more interested in Max’s ongoing interactions with his vivacious, take-no-guff granddaughter, Annie (a terrific Kerry Bishé) and his frustrated son, Chris (beautifully played by San Francisco native Kevin Pollak).

“Max Rose” is the kind of movie where the characters talk like real people, and respond to the other characters precisely as you wish they would. No long monologues, no theatrical ranting about past grievances, no poetic yearnings.

What the film has in spades is heart and soul. In fact, it’s kind of astonishing how Noah conjures an atmosphere of warmth and abiding goodness despite the frequently dark interiors and Max’s various estrangements and unresolved regrets.

Even the hardest-hitting moment in the film generates empathy rather than anger.

“I love you,” Chris tells his closed-off dad in the middle of a disagreement. He pauses, takes a step closer to Max and again says, “I love you.” Another pause. Then, “You try to say it.”

Lewis’ presence, more than anything, gives the film its mildly Jewish flavor. Max’s unspoken regrets — for toes stepped on in the pursuit of his ambitions as a jazz pianist (of little note, incidentally), for Eva’s feelings that he ignored, for the son he never praised — play less like something out of Arthur Miller than as evocations of Lewis’ own bull-in-a-china-shop career.

However, it wouldn’t be accurate to suggest that Lewis is plumbing the depths and disappointments of his own life. This isn’t Bergman, after all.

What Lewis does, though, is give a spare, generous performance that brims with kindness and appreciation for other people’s burden and loneliness. It dovetails with the central theme of the film, which is a largely aphorism-free encouragement to love the people in your life now.

If you’ve ever said, “They don’t make movies for older people,” or “Movies these days are nothing but explosions and chase scenes,” stop kvetching and go see “Max Rose.”

“Max Rose”
opens Friday, Sept. 16 at Opera Plaza ­­Cinemas, S.F. and the Albany Twin in Albany (83 minutes, unrated)

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle. He is the curator and host of the CinemaLit film series at the Mechanics’ Institute and teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.