Michael Caine is apparently in the last-legs/ tear-jerker phase of his career, and it's almost unfair.

Unfair that one of the movies' most facile talents, still in full possession of his powers and wits, can deploy them to work on us the way he does in "Is Anybody There?"

Caine plays Clarence, a retired magician with off-and-on senility who moves into a ramshackle old folks home (circa 1987, for some reason), where he first alienates and then befriends the morbid little boy (Bill Milner) who belongs to the proprietors.

The title refers to the lad's fixation on the afterlife - he wants to know what happens to the rest home's old people when they die, and finds a strange kind of comfort in imagining that they haunt the place.

Clarences shuns the boy, then enables him - conducting a seance, exploiting his interest in the supernatural as a means of drawing the boy out of his social-outcast shell.

"Is Anybody There?" sounds dour, but it's as comical and irascible as Clarence himself. The boy's father (David Morrissey), for instance, has a seven-year itch that manifests itself as a mullet cut and oafish come-ons to a buxom staff nurse.

The movie treats the goings and goings of the rest home's short-timers with slightly dark detachment, and Caine of course exactly grasps the offbeat tone of the picture.

He really excels, though, in scenes that become suddenly raw and sincere - standing in front of the grave of his dead wife, alternately remembering and forgetting where he is.

It's good stuff from Caine, an actor who - like Clarence - often pretends that his craft is a simple application of practiced technique.

There's such a thing as real magic, though, and Caine's given us more than his share. *

Produced by Dav*d Heyman, Peter Saraf and Marc Turtletaub, d*rected by John Crowley, wr*tten by Peter Harness, mus*c by Joby Talbot, d*str*buted by B*g Beach.