For an actor whose enviable career owes everything to a bit part as an alien foe of the Fonz on TV's Happy Days, Robin Williams has an awfully sure grip on Hollywood's heartstrings. This is, after all, a man whose first leading role in a major motion picture was that of a cartoon sailor man with swollen forearms and a visceral love-hate relationship with canned spinach. But that was then, this is now, and even Oscar agrees that Williams is just as good at exposing complex antiheros in uncommon settings as he ever was at riffing on hard drugs and prophylactics at light speed on HBO. These days, he's the consummate goof-with-a-heart-of-gold--a shorter, hairier Tom Hanks with the box-office brawn to prove it.
That said, it takes a certain amount of moxie to follow up the sap-soaked true-life tale of Patch Adams with another would-be Sad Clown epic, this one set in the grim climes of a Jewish ghetto in WWII Poland. What's more, much of the advance buzz on Jakob the Liar has been backhanded at best, with many forecasters reading it as an English-language redux of last year's award-hoarding Life Is Beautiful. It'd be easy enough to believe them: If Roberto Benigni and Williams share anything, it's the ability to take the gravest of contexts and turn it into a comfy solo vehicle for hammy physical comedy and poignant dramatic contrast. But if Williams is dancing on the seats at the Shrine Auditorium next March, it won't be for ripping off his Italian counterpart. In fact, he may even get a few pats on the back for showing some unusual restraint.
Adapted from the first novel by Polish-born writer and Holocaust survivor Jurek Becker, Jakob the Liar casts its title character (Williams) as a lonely, widowed sad sack who, like his fellow condemned Jews, lives as heartily as he can on a steady diet of starch, one-liners, friendship, and fear and loathing of the Gestapo. As it happens, it's an unjust run-in with the local commandant that sets Jakob's bittersweet foibles in motion. Just before reluctantly kissing a little requisite Nazi ass, he overhears a radio broadcast announcing the advance of Russian troops at a not-too-distant German outpost. It's the first real news he has heard in ages--let alone good news--and it's all he can do to keep it to himself. Or, more accurately, it's all he can't do. Within hours, word of the skirmish has leaked out to most everyone in the ghetto, with all eyes on Jakob as its questionable source.
Anxious to cover his tracks to and from the commandant's office, Jakob births a whopper by claiming he heard the news on his own secretly stashed radio--a rarefied treasure that, naturally, does not exist. Soon enough, he's got the whole community in a tizzy over his conjured-up reports of allied strikes and BBC updates. Even the little orphan girl (Hannah Taylor Gordon) holed up in Jakob's attic buys into his hope-inspiring hooey, eventually insisting that he let her listen to one of the forbidden broadcasts for herself. It's not until this precise moment that Jakob the Liar becomes a proper Robin Williams Movie: It's a different continent and a different war, but the malleable star summons familiar shades of Good Morning Vietnam's Adrian Cronauer as Jakob enacts a one-man faux radio show to please and appease his fearful daughter figure, aping Winston Churchill, Josef Stalin, and signal interference with studied comic aplomb. She's enrapt, of course. And if star/exec producer Williams gets his wish, so are we.
But, thankfully, the solo shtick is more or less confined to this single scene, making room for a sturdy ensemble cast to stretch its legs a bit. If the relatively recent Schindler's List was an intensive study in Holocaust camaraderie, Jakob reverts back to the European school of tale-spinning in which characters needn't run too deep to be meaningful. Veteran sideman Bob Balaban is pleasingly imperfect as Jakob's suicidal barber and best friend, whose shallow-but-earnest persona more than serves its sobering purpose. Liev Schreiber's role as a young boxer with an appetite for resistance is even more broadly drawn, as is Alan Arkin's part as an actor-turned-father with his own penchant for tall tales. These human sketches may not register as immediately as Williams's amiable comic-tragic mugging, but they do much to advance a story whose relevance to the Jewish experience is genuine.
There's little doubt that the good Mr. Spielberg has cornered the market on accessible WWII realism this decade, which is why it's hard to fault director and co-screenwriter Peter Kassovitz (father of actor-filmmaker Mathieu, who's sadly underused as an ill-fated Jewish comrade here) for playing to the simplicity of his script. From the gray, crumbling ghetto sets to the melancholy, polka-peppered score, it's as plain-faced a Holocaust fable as you're likely to find at American multiplexes. As for Williams, he may even redeem Patch Adams's schmaltzy excesses by keeping his terminal magnetism in check, filling his own superstar shoes without treading on the toes of his fellow players or the principles behind the play.
Jakob the Liar starts Friday at area theaters.
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.