JAKOB THE LIAR
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
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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