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JAKOB THE LIAR

by: Scott Renshaw

There is a scene early in JAKOB THE LIAR that hints at how much better it could have been. The scene is set in a Jewish ghetto in Poland circa 1944, where a one-time cafe proprietor named Jakob Heym is walking resolutely through the streets, fists stuffed into coat pockets. To one side of him, residents scavenge for food in the street; to the other side, German troops beat a group of Jews. Jakob, however, never stops moving. It's an efficient, effective set-up for the character, who is clearly nobody's idea of a hero at the outset. He is a man who has responded to the horror of his surroundings by withdrawing from them, excising his moral peripheral vision.

The set-up is critical because fate will turn Jakob into a reluctant savior. After a visit to a German commandant's office and a moment alone with a turned-on radio, Jakob learns that Russian troops are quite near. When he brings this first news of the war in years to his fellow Jews, they become convinced that he must have a radio, which is a punishable offense in the ghetto. The good news brings hope to the ghetto; the everyday specter of suicide vanishes. A private man of limited creativity finds himself burdened with creating stories of Russian military progress just to keep his neighbors alive.

This promising story of an ordinary person doing the extraordinary is burdened from the outset by casting: the "ordinary person" in question, Jakob Heym, is played by Robin Williams. I am of the depressing opinion that Williams is growing less assured as an actor in his "serious" roles with every passing year. Compare his dramatic scenes in THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP and MOSCOW ON THE HUDSON with WHAT DREAMS MAY COME or PATCH ADAMS, and see how much more mannered he has become (or, at the very least, how much less sensible at choosing material). JAKOB THE LIAR depends on the notion that Jakob has to struggle to craft his fictions, but Williams always looks like he's struggling not to craft them. When he improvises a radio address by Winston Churchill for ailing 10-year-old orphan Lina (Hannah Taylor Gordon), he seems relieved that he can finally get wacky.

Oh yes, and then there's that little girl. Some viewers will undoubtedly consider the hero's fanciful stories for a young charge too reminiscent of LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL, but those scenes aren't problematic because they're familiar. They're problematic because they're jarring and distracting, introducing a cutesy relationship into a film that shouldn't have been about cutesy relationships. Jakob's character arc may be about his willingness to act for the benefit of others, but there are plenty of others without poor little Lina. Every scene with her feels contrived, pulling JAKOB THE LIAR away from its central story of hope coming to a previously hopeless people.

It is a pleasant surprise to find that JAKOB THE LIAR is a much grittier production than you might expect from a Hollywood-ized Holocaust, combining the weighty subject matter with dark humor in some effective ways. Director Peter Kassovitz, working from Jurek Becker's novel, crafts some nice scenes between Jakob and the other townspeople, and draws solid performances from Armin Mueller-Stahl (as a once-revered doctor) and Bob Balaban (as a barber drifting into depression). There are just too many things going on that prove distracting, whether it's the sketchy romanctic angle involving Liev Schreiber as an earnest former prizefighter, or Williams' incongrous presence, or a sweet but utterly irrelevant little girl. JAKOB THE LIAR deals with too delicate a subject for such fumbling, and has too compelling a central character to waste. And after one wonderful early scene, you can see the film wasted and fumbled away.

On the Renshaw scale of 0 to 10 liars' clubs: 4.

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