Nearly a year after Life is Beautiful graced the movie screens, Hollywood serves up its own version of a Holocaust comedy. But where Life is Beautiful made all the right moves, Jakob the Liar goes a few steps too far trying to move the audience.
The movie take place in a Polish ghetto in the final days of WWII. Jakob (Robin Williams) is a former pancake vendor who now toils by day in a labor camp. A series of mishaps give him the opportunity to hear a snippet of news on a German radio. However, when he tells this news to his former boxing pupil, Mischa (Liev Schreiber), things quickly get out of control.
Soon, everyone in the ghetto believes Jakob has hidden a radio from the Germans, and everyone begs him for any shred of news from the outside world. No one will believe the truth, that Jakob has no radio. But, when Jakob sees the hope his snippets of news give to the people, he begins making up his own reports, to inspire the spirits of his fellow Jews.
Of course, if word leaks out to the Germans, Jakob is a dead man. And Jakob has even more troubles. He is hiding a young girl, Lina (Hannah Taylor Gordon), who barely escaped a train to a death camp. Now Jakob has two lives to protect
It is an enigma why several filmmakers all decided at the same time that the world was ready for Holocaust-set comedies. Comparisons between Jakob the Liar and Life is Beautiful come naturally, and Jakob the Liar always ends up on bottom. However, apart from the other Holocaust comedy, Jakob the Liar is a decent, but not stellar, film.
Robin Williams turns in another of his trademark touchy-feely performances. At least in Jakob the Liar, there’s a bit of an edge to them. Jakob has a hefty moral dilemma to wrestle with, and Williams handles it well.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Robin Williams movie if he wasn’t allowed to do the typical Robin Williams schtick. This time, he pretends to be the radio, giving imitations of news announcers, Winston Churchill, and even homemade music. Not only does this bit clash with the tone of the rest of the movie, but the humor falls flat as well.
Williams is joined by a wide supporting cast. Other prisoners in the ghetto include a former actor (Alan Arkin), a doctor (Armin Mueller-Stahl), and a suicidal barber (Bob Balaban) are but a few of the faces that make up a talented supporting cast. Yet, most of the time they are just used for color…it’s a waste of good resources.
As you might expect, the film is very maniuplative. I usually don’t mind having my heartstrings tugged, but Jakob the Liar is exceedingly overt about it. Manipulation is best done subtly, and here, the technique distracts from the drama.
Yet, it might be impossible to make a film about the Holocaust that isn’t moving it at least some ways, and Jakob the Liar is a few notches above the standard. You won’t be crying buckets of tears, nor laughing uproariously. But with a sniffle here, and a chuckle there, Jakob the Liar proves that even a second-rate Life is Beautiful can have its moments.