Jakob The Liar

on September 24, 1999 by Annlee Ellingson
Little white lies make a dramatic impact in this Robin Williams vehicle based on the Jurek Becker book. Williams is Jakob Heym, a pancake vendor relegated to physical labor like the rest of the men in the Nazi-occupied Jewish ghetto. Unjustly ordered to the police commandant's office for a curfew violation, Jakob inadvertently hears a forbidden radio broadcast that indicates the Russians have advanced to a point just 400 km away. At first he keeps the news, the first of the war he's heard in years, to himself. But when his friend Mischa (Liev Schrieber) insists on risking his life meaninglessly, Jakob uses the information to offer him hope.
   Jakob's plan backfires when Mischa spreads the rumor throughout the ghetto that Jakob has a radio, a possession severely restricted by Nazi rule. Of course, no one believes his vehement denials, and Jakob is forced to make up news to pacify his hungry listeners. The liar doubts the wisdom of his new role in the community, but the hope that he offers plummets the ghetto's rampant suicide rate while making the men bolder to their brutal Nazi persecutors.
   Writer/d irector Peter Kassovitz keeps the tone light, juxtaposing Williams' clever banter with well cast co-stars Schreiber, Alan Arkin and Armin Mueller-Stahl with the ghetto's drab surroundings drawn from a palette of dirty grays, ash and slate. Kassovitz's camera moves smoothly and energetically around Jakob as he walks through the ghetto streets, reflecting his cheerful mood after hearing the illicit news despite the horror occurring around him.
   The film earns respect by nixing a dramatic Oscar-nabbing speech by Williams at the end, opting instead to showcase the thesp's charismatic, albeit battered, goofy grin. However, the potentially sincere ending is negated by another lie, giving the film a boxoffice friendly feeling of hope but lessening its dramatic intensity. Starring Robin Williams, Alan Arkin, Armin Mueller-Stahl and Liev Schreiber. Directed by Peter Kassovitz. Written by Peter Kassovitz and Didier Decoin. Produced by Marsha Garces Williams and Steven Haft. A Columbia release. Drama. Rated PG-13 for violence and disturbing images. Running time: 120 min.
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