Robin Williams-style sentimentality overshadows Holocaust story in 'Jakob the Liar'
In considering whether or not to see "Jakob the Liar," the question you have to ask yourself is this: Just how much sappy, Robin Williams sentimentality can I stand?
If your tolerance is low (did "Patch Adams" give you hives?), you'd best skip this one -- an insistently uplifting fable of a Jew in Nazi-occupied Poland who keeps the spirits up in his prison-like Jewish ghetto by making up news broadcasts about the course of the war.
One of those rare films in which Williams really acts (as opposed to playing a variation on himself), "Jakob" isn't a bad film, but it still has "please take me seriously" written all over it.
Based on a novel by Jurek Becker ("The Boxer") and helmed by Hungarian director Peter Kassovitz -- both childhood Holocaust survivors -- the story begins when former cafe-owner Jakob Heym (Williams) is brought before a police commandant, falsely accused of breaking curfew, and hears a forbidden radio broadcast describing a German defeat at the hands of the Soviets.
With a bit of luck and self-deprecating humor, Jakob is allowed to return to the ghetto (the alternative was execution) and carries this precious, hopeful news with him. But to reveal it could be risky -- to let it be known he left the commandant's office alive would surely mark him as an informant and a traitor.
However, when he sees the desperation overtaking his friends and neighbors, he tells a few people in confidence, allowing them to believe he has a radio -- a belief that quickly becomes rumor, spreading like wildfire through the ghetto. Soon Jakob finds himself inventing war bulletins just so he doesn't destroy the newly sprung sense of hope that he helped spawn.
Admirable for its art film aspirations, "Jakob" shows a lot of promise early on with its Vittorio De Scia-like visual style, its very European mood and its sad, unassuming accordion score. The freeze-framing credit sequences, in which Williams chases a wind-whipped newspaper page through the streets, desperate for any glint of the world outside his ghetto's walls, is truly inspired.
But as Jakob's reluctant updates begin to split the community, some taking the view that he's putting them all in danger if he's caught, the movie starts to weaken and some Hollywood conventions seep in, leaving it feeling medicinal and slightly lethargic. It isn't long before the contractual Robin Williams improv scene (he apes a live radio broadcast to perk up a little girl who escapes a concentration camp-bound box car) and other ill-advised warm fuzzies threaten the integrity of the picture.
An equipoise mix of understated humor and the Holocaust horrors, "Jakob" hints at what Williams is capable of when he lets go his standard screen persona. His accent is steady, his physical mannerisms muted, his voice melancholy when he speaks in imagination to his dead wife. He's honest and affecting in the movie's saddest scenes and (miraculously) subtle in delivering the movie's dark punchlines.
He's backed by a strong supporting cast, too. Armin Mueller-Stahl ("Shine," "The Thirteenth Floor") plays a Jewish doctor who knows Jakob is lying but encourages him to go on, calling it "good medicine" for the community. Liev Schreiber ("A Walk On the Moon") plays Jakob's friend, a former boxer who's a little worse for the wear, cerebrally speaking. Alan Arkin ("Gattaca"), Bob Balaban ("Waiting for Guffman"), Michael Jeter ("Mouse Hunt") and Nina Siemaszko ("The American President") all turn in honorable performances as apprehensive ghetto residents.
Kassovitz does a good job building a bleak atmosphere of slight hope within hopelessness, and the film finds a creative way to skirt the inevitable fate of most of the ghetto's citizenry without diminishing too much of the impact any Holocaust movie is obligated to depict.
But ultimately "Jakob the Liar" goes down like innocuous, sugary children's' medicine, which is a shame because for a couple reels it looks like it might become the movie the overrated "Life Is Beautiful" should have been.