Jakob the Liar (1999)
In the fickle entertainment industry, little can be as detrimental to a film’s success as bad timing. And the latest Robin Williams’ weepy not only suffers from poor timing, it cuts its own throat with the careless mistake. Coming hot on the heels of another World War II comedy/drama known affectionately as Life is Beautiful would have proved much better if the foreign film had stayed in the art house screens and quickly come and gone. Instead Roberto Benigni’s touching film made its way to big screens, broke the record for best receipts of a foreign film in America, and went on to steal the nation’s hearts and pick up three Oscar statuettes. The Hollywood version of Benigni’s Holocaust fable proves what happens when people take something that was a miracle it worked once before, and so well, and try catching lightening in a bottle again.
Jakob the Liar is never truly any form of comedy, unless you thought Hogans Heroes was in dire need of a big screen adaption because all the other Holocaust movies did not accurately portray the wackiness that was Nazi Germany. Most of the jokes are so grim and morbid that you’ll be gritting your teeth more than smiling.
The story can be very hamfisted and forceful at times, interesting considering there’s not much driving any story. And the end is scene-for-scene exact with Benigni’s flick. Most of the performances are marginal, with many appearing to be weary that they’re even in the movie. The story’s addition of a little girl that Williams’ takes under his wing for guidance is more of a distracting subplot taking attention away from the common thread of one man giving hope to the hopeless. Minus one charming scene with Williams’ improvising a radio broadcast with kitchen utensils she’s mainly a pointless addition.
The splinter in the paw of this movie is Robin Williams himself. Anyone out there remember when he used to do comedy, not schmaltzy bittersweet tug-from-the-heart-strings melodrama? Though his mugging is restrained for the most part, the sentimentality burns thin rather quickly. The movie tries to manipulate you and letting the floodgates loose with those tear ducts, but it’s so clear it’s not going to make you feel but manipulate that you can very easily see the strings as they’re being pulled.
Jakob the Liar does have a good director at its helm to show the Holocaust as the grim reality it was and not sugarcoat anything. A great deal of gratitude should go to the director for at least partially saving Jakob from being worse than it could be. Though I’m of the mind that I’m positive audiences will love it and most likely bash me, I just want everyone to know that Roberto Benigni did it earlier and better and I’d stress seeing that movie instead.
Nate’s Grade: C