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Jakob the Liar   Starring: Robin Williams

  Genre: Comedy/Drama

  Running Time: 114 Minutes

  Rating: Rated PG-13 for violence and disturbing images.

  Video Release: 21 March 2000

  Tagline: "When all hope was lost, he invented it."

"Wartime tale of a man who creates a fantasy to make the Holocaust more bearable for a child."

Hmmm, sounds like.... No, it’s not Roberto Benigni's Oscar-winning Life Is Beautiful -- though it isn’t hard to note many of the similarities. Jakob the Lair was actually produced in late 1997 (same as LIB) though Columbia decided to hold the release of this Robin William’s Holocaust tale for a full year. Miramax, taking advantage of Columbia’s hesitation, released an English-dubbed version of Life Is Beautiful right before Columbia's film was ready to go out -- leaving Williams & company the difficult task of playing second string. So is Jakob the Lair a shallow second act or does it differ from its award winning predecessor?

Jakob Heym (Robin Williams) is a Jewish cafe owner living in a Nazi-occupied Polish ghetto. While in Gestapo headquarters, he overhears a German radio news bulletin proclaiming Soviet military advances. Jakob tries to contain this information but the news soon leaks out to his fellow ghetto residents. While this news dramatically raises the hopes of the terrorized village, the tale blows out of proportion as the others believe Jakob is concealing a radio. The problem with that is possession of a radio means instant execution for the bearer and Jakob faces tragedy should the Germans merely think this radio exists. The rest of the film then revolves around the reactions of Jakob’s neighbors and how this mythical radio offers possible salvation from the Nazi persecution.

The supporting cast is an excellent ensemble of talent. There is the cynical Shakespearean actor Max Frankfurter (Alan Arkin) who highly doubts the existence of such a radio but will see it destroyed nonetheless. Mischa (Liev Schreiber), a dim-witted former boxer who starts this entire "lie" and does anything to stay in Jakob’s good graces. Then there is Jakob’s barber, Kowalsky (Bob Balaban), whom Jakob has a very lopsided bet with for the past four years, and Kirschbaum (Armin Muller-Stahl) who is the ghetto’s noble physician.

While Williams contains his goofy comedic style with the sullen portrayal as Jakob, it’s easy to see the restraints he puts himself in. His performance is one of mixed emotions as his character maintains a wincing smile while an expression of anguish lies just below the surface. The only time he taps into his comedic side is when he improvises a radio transmission for the entertainment of his real secret (a ten-year-old runaway, Lina [Hannah Taylor-Gordon]) whom he has hidden from both the Germans and his fellow ghetto neighbors.

The principal difference between Bengini’s film and Jakob the Liar is that the latter is hardly a comedy. The film opens to a grim and barren setting that perpetuates the somber sensation of claustrophobia and foreboding throughout it's 114 minutes. This gloomy environment lends more to the mood of the Spielberg epic, Schindler's List, if anything. The problem Jakob encounters is its jaunty music and casting of familiar comic faces making one believe this film strives to be comedic. Again with the opening, there’s Jakob’s voice-over about an old joke on Hitler and the laughable visuals of Jakob running for a discarded newspaper that flutters in the breeze.

The best analogy for this film is that of a "middle child" alternating between bumbling group antics and strained poignancy as it yearns for attention from both parents (comedy and drama). While director Peter Kassovitz kept Williams (and his cronies) in check, its obvious when a one-liner would be more in William's character than the amiable ex-restaurateur he attempts to portray.

Based on the novel by Jurek Becker (a concentration camp survivor), Jakob the Lair is an extremely faithful remake of Frank Beyer's East German film, Jakob der Lügner. That 1974 film won a foreign-language Oscar nominee and a Silver Bear winner at the Berlin Film Festival back in 1975. While Kassovitz (and cinematographer Elemér Ragályi) have captured the soul-chilling hopelessness of the ghetto, there is always the notion of comic relief just around the corner -- and there lies this film’s greatest fault.

While this 1997 remake had its moments, the ending is predictable and disappointing. Give it a "2."

© Terrence J. Brady

The ratings for "Pan & Scan" are broken down into a simple 1-5 scale as follows: 5 = "Forget renting it - BUY IT!"; 4 = "Definite Must Rent"; 3 = "Coin Toss" (Rent it OR wait for cable); 2 = "Wait For Cable"; 1 = "Ignore It!" (Even when it's on network TV).