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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 3/22/00

Jakob the Liar
1999 (2000) - Columbia TriStar

review by Brad Pilcher of The Digital Bits

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

Jakob the Liar Film Rating: B-

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A-/B+/B-

Specs and Features

120 mins, PG-13, letterboxed widescreen (1.85:1), 16x9 enhanced, full frame (1.33:1), dual-sided, single-layered, Amaray keep case packaging, commentary with director Peter Kassovitz, isolated music score, "making of" featurette, production notes, talent files, film-themed menu screens, scene access (28 chapters), languages: English (DD 5.1), subtitles: English, Closed Captioned

"I believe we're the chosen people, but I wish the Almighty had chosen somebody else."

The Holocaust has been a subject that several films have tackled in the 90s. From Spielberg’s Schindler's List to Life is Beautiful by the Italian genius Roberto Benigni, filmmakers have been attempting to make some sort of sense out of the darkest period of the Twentieth century. Now Robin Williams gets in on the act with the more recent Jakob the Liar.

Aside from being a box-office bomb, the movie is also the weakest of the Holocaust films made in recent years. Where Spielberg's efforts were successful in capturing and evoking the epic drama of the Shoah (Hebrew for Holocaust), Jakob the Liar can't figure out if it's a comedy or a drama, never quite reaching success as a dramedy. Where Benigni was able to show a humor that conquered the torment of the Nazi's, Williams falls flat with his characters, often more like cardboard cutouts than anything. Granted, some of the scenes definitely evoked a smile or a pang in the heart, but ultimately the film fails.

Williams plays Jacob Heym, a Jewish former cafe owner in a Polish Ghetto. He is eventually joined by Hannah Taylor-Gordon as the young Lina, an escapee from a train on its way to the concentration camps. Armin Mueller-Stahl, notable from The Thirteenth Floor delivers perhaps the best performance of the film as the noble doctor Kirschbaum. The plot line is rather simple. In order to stop a friend from getting himself killed, Jakob makes up a story that he heard on a fictional radio. When the news spreads, Jakob is forced to continue his radio bulletins in order to keep the hope of his Jewish neighbors alive. The Nazis, of course, learn of the radio's existence and begin a search to find the operator of the mythical radio.

Where the film falls down is in the approach. The film is certainly a drama. Williams has proven his ability to emote dramatically and he makes a valiant attempt here. The problem is that the film also wants to be a comedy along the lines of Life is Beautiful at some points. The Nazi persecutors are depicted as bumbling fools, plagued by incompetence and the inability to control their Jewish victims. This depiction ends up detracting from the story, robbing the climax of its emotional impact. An overly sappy script doesn't help.

On the technical side, the disc is fine. The anamorphic transfer is good, with hardly any problems. There is some grain visible here and there, but this may be purposeful, as it would certainly fit with the theme. The audio is also good, although don't expect any tank battles or heavy audio highlights. But the sound is encompassing and rich. The surround sound is poorly used, however, not really lending itself to directional effects. Given the source, that's a minor complaint.

The extras represent a good attempt, but don't quite execute. The director's commentary, for example, is both dull and uninsightful. There are huge (and I mean huge) chunks of space when he says nothing. You still hear the film, but a commentary should say more. The featurette is a promo piece entirely, but is still a nice addition. The isolated score is also available (and is good), but doesn't fully make-up for the commentary. The lack of a theatrical trailer is all the more puzzling.

In the end, the film is weak but still good. It doesn't compare to the original 1975 German film (upon which it was based), or any of the aforementioned Holocaust films, but it has its humor and its heart. It just doesn't come up with a full house. The disc is good, but nothing to write home about either. Columbia TriStar slipped up here with a solid host of extras on paper. But once you start playing the disc, you find them to be OK at best. If you like Robin Williams, you'll probably want to pick it up.

Brad Pilcher
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