Jerry Lewis returns to theaters with emotional ‘Max Rose’

Jerry Lewis returns to the big screen in a starring role for the first time since the 1990s in “Max Rose,” a singularly unexpected project for the iconic comic actor.

This is a small and restrained movie about aging, grief and loss, a long way removed from classic Lewis material.

The legend, now 90 years old, plays the eponymous character, a father and grandfather grappling with the death of his wife of 50 years and the terrible posthumous revelation that she may have once considered leaving him for another man.

He’s in every scene and, of course, he’s the reason to see writer-director Daniel Noah’s movie, which shines in its quietest moments but ultimately has the misfortune of hitting its emotional beats with an obviousness that borders on heavy-handedness.

The filmmaker seems to understand the gift he’s been given by Lewis’s presence, making a great and concerted effort to linger on his sad and forlorn face, to present his Max Rose’s sadness in subtle tones, letting the performance totally drive the movie.

Let’s be honest: Lewis has never been the world’s greatest actor, though his career is of course filled with memorable performances. And sometimes, the rust shows. There are some rough line readings here.

But more importantly, there’s an authenticity to his work that’s derived from an inherent understanding of the pain of this sort of devastating loss, and the truth that we can never fully know even with those who are closest to us.

This is really a spiritual horror movie, a cousin to films like the far more hardened “Amour” by Michael Haneke. It is engulfed in futility and hopelessness, in the burdens of mortality as embodied by a haunted man, even if the narrative is dotted with reconciliations and emotional connections.

Noah undercuts the power of that achievement by embedding an unnecessary measure of sentimentality into the movie, with such cornball touches as dissolves into white light, a score that aggressively tugs at the heart and a visual aesthetic defined by dulcet autumnal imagery.

There’s no comfort here, no redemption, no joy. Just an enduring emptiness. That’s less palatable than forgiveness and understanding, but it is perhaps more truthful.

Lewis gets it. The chance to see such a show business giant take a gamble in his seventh decade in the business should not be underestimated. He makes the movie work. It’s just too bad that his filmmaker lets him down.

Max Rose

Directed by Daniel Noah

Starring Jerry Lewis, Kerry Bishé, Kevin Pollack

Not rated

Playing at Landmark Sunshine Cinema