Rated PG-13 - Running Time: 1:54 - Released 9/24/99

There is no doubt about it: Robin Williams needs a success. After his Oscar-winning performance in 1997's Good Will Hunting, he has filled up the last two years with the uninspired Flubber, the sappy What Dreams May Come, and the much-sappier Patch Adams. With his title role in Jakob The Liar, he may win back some points from his critics. The wildly unpredictable actor is able to keep the multiple personality disorder to a minimum and establish a real character, with some real feeling.

Directed and adapted for the screen by Hungarian-born Peter Kassovitz, from the novel by Jurek Becker, Jakob The Liar is similar in tone to Roberto Benigni's Life Is Beautiful. It tells the story of a group of Polish Jews in 1944, living in the Nazi-controlled ghetto, working, starving, and awaiting transport to the death camps. But like Benigni's work, Jakob infuses the horror with just a touch of humor — a dangerous practice, but one that generally pays off in this case.

Jakob is a former restauranteur who can't remember the last time he made one of his famous potato pancakes, but still tries to maintain his sense of humor. When he is caught out after curfew one night, he is sent to the commandant's quarters for punishment. There he hears on the radio that the Russians have crossed the Polish border. When he returns to the ghetto, he tells his friends the good news. Word spreads that he has a radio, and he becomes a celebrity overnight. At first, he denies it (after all, the possession of a radio by a Jew is a crime punishable by execution), but when he discovers that good news lifts the spirits of the whole community, he decides to continue telling them what they want to hear.

This film is nicely executed by Kassovitz; shot on location in Poland and Hungary, it portrays vividly the squalid oppression under which the Eastern European Jews lived during World War II. It is helped immeasurably by a superbly talented supporting cast, including Bob Balaban (2010), Liev Schreiber, Adam Arkin, and Armin Mueller-Stahl, who, incidentally, also appeared in the 1974 East German version. Also on hand is Hannah Taylor-Gordon as Lina, a young girl who escapes the cattle cars and is taken in by Jakob.

Though the similarity between Jakob and Life Is Beautiful cannot be ignored, there are enough differences to contradict the notion that it is simply a copy of Benigni's film. It is interesting to note that Jakob was apparently shot in 1997, the same time as the Italian film; perhaps the producers (of which Williams is one) decided to hold this film back to avoid undue comparison.

With Jakob The Liar, Williams makes a few more steps toward proving that he can act with the big boys, and like Benigni, Kassovitz shows that the holocaust tragedy can be sprinkled with humor and still taken seriously, if the mix is right. ****

Copyright 1999 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

See Current Reviews

See FilmQuips Archive