One of the most enduring aspects of Robin Williams’ career was his chameleonic ability to do both comedy and drama without a hitch. His masterful work in the likes of The World According to Garp, Dead Poets Society, Good Will Hunting, One Hour Photo and Insomnia showed his dramatic chops, able to deliver thoroughly human performances that could be funny yet morose, frightening, nuanced and wearied.
Indeed, during the late 90s, Williams seemed most interested in making films related to human nature: its compassion (Patch Adams), its vision (Bicentennial Man) and its optimism in the face of hopelessness for today’s subject, a remake of a 1975 German film. Set in the Polish ghettos of late World War II-era Poland, the titular Jakob is a down on his luck cafe owner. One small slip up one night causes him to be sent briefly before the Nazi commandant. There, he catches news of the war on the German radio and soon, tall tales begin to emerge around what Jakob heard, and that even he possesses a radio of his own. Initially reluctant, Jakob uses the lie to help bring hope to the desperate residents of the ghetto, as well as a little girl in his charge.
The late Williams delivers, probably his best performance from his ‘sap years’ (though his acting wasn’t the issue with either Patch Adams or Bicentennial Man, to be frank). He’s very toned down and dour, but not without levity or a certain gusto to him that does make him endearing and allow you to buy his being able to craft convincing fiction. How this performance qualified for a Razzie is beyond me (but rants about the pandering and incompetence of that awards body are for another day), but Williams more than capably carries the film. In supporting roles, we have the likes of Liev Schreiber, Alan Arkin, Hannah Taylor Gordon and Armin Mueller-Stahl who all turn in solid work, with Stahl being the highlight as the wise old doctor who holds the community together with his wisdom and hopeful disposition.
Production wise, it’s about as solid as you’d expect for a $45 million price tag. Peter Kassovitz’ direction is graceful and simple, allowing the foulness of the rundown and grimy ghetto sets to speak for themselves, which are rather well recreated, and Edward Shearmur’s score has an underlying whimsy throughout, though it can get morbid and sombre a number of times. Really, the faults lie more with the writing than the presentation; there’s a missing intensity, a missing gravity to this whole affair. This sounds odd, as one would think the Holocaust would provide all of that, thus making Jakob’s struggles more impressive, but it doesn’t.
The film lacks the visceral of, say, The Pianist or Schindler’s List, never really hitting home the horrifying nature of the situation, and its lackadaisical pacing means a sense of tension or urgency is lacking when it shouldn’t. Even the Germans are surprisingly hands off for a lot of the film. Kassovitz’ approach (serving also as co-writer) is perhaps a little too pulled back, in this sense. Not helping matters is that none of the supporting characters are as compelling as they should be, often just there to repeatedly ask Jakob questions about the war. Not necessarily flat or one dimensional, the dynamic between Jakob and the girl is sweet enough, but again, that lack of humanity does often leave what should be strong emotions (especially considering that, minor spoilers, some of them die) feeling a tad hollow when the film does pick up in the last act.
It puts me in mind of the likes of John Byrum’s The Razor’s Edge or Andy Garcia’s The Lost City; a lot of the right components are here, yet it never musters up enough emotion to become as powerful as it needs to be. That absolute sense of hopelessness and desperation that Jakob endeavours to combat, however reluctantly, feels less like a thick thematic coating, and more a thin layer for awards season consideration.
That’s not to say the movie is bad, as it is a perfectly serviceable WW2 drama, and from a perspective, we don’t often see i.e. life in the Ghettos, rather than on the front or in the death camps themselves. No one can deny Williams’ versatility as a performer, and there’s always something worthwhile in seeing him try new things. Still, it could’ve been so much more if they pushed a little harder on the sheer bleakness of the premise, and maybe given the comedic elements a little more bite than bits about potato pancakes and Winston speaking with an accent.
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