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IN SHORT: oy, but not as in "oy is this bad" [Rated [PG-13] , 125 minutes]
The setting is an unnamed Jewish ghetto, but not Warsaw, somewhere in Poland in the latter days of World War II. There is little food. There are no children. There has been no word from outside the ghetto walls for years. No hope. Which is perfect for the Jewish community, 'cuz we always find away to make light of hopeless situations. In trying to recreate that situation with a degree of realism, Jakob the Liar may have doomed itself. Let's try a test. Does this line of dialog make you laugh . . . ?
"A barber with a dull razor is like a blind mohel."
Ok, that should be an easy one. If you didn't get it, the liberal use of common "Jewish" words in the first half of this movie may have you scratching your head. "Latke" is used a dozen times before it's definition (it's a potato pancake) is worked into the script. So, head for the local synagogue and make some friends. Ask them to come along to the movie with you and act bewildered if they respond "Ach! You don't want to see that."
I can make jokes like that. I'm a member of the tribe and have covered a lot of stuff about the Holocaust in the review of The Last Days.
The marketing folk at Sony, knowing that the heavy Jewish flavor to Jakob the Liar might not be attractive to Gentiles, airbrushed the Jewish star (in the original movie poster, on Robin Williams' back) from six points to five. Thus, Jew free. That decision was changed, as you can see in the poster provided to us. The Tribe has been through more dunderheaded decisions, but the fact remains that regardless of the ethnicity inherent in this flick, this isn't the domain of the funny. This being Oscar time, though, Jakob the Liar aims for the domain of the poignant and almost hits it. It might work for you -- the acting is solid, the story is solid and the script imparts the dark humor that we're famous for. Two hours watching a repressive situation is still two hours watching a repressive situation.
Jakob Heym (Robin Williams), whose wife was murdered by the Nazis, is the star of the show. In an effort to grab a stray piece of newspaper -- news is forbidden in the ghetto -- he is sent to the principal, so to speak, the Nazi in charge of the ghetto, whose radio is playing while Jakob waits for punishment. It's a helluva punishment -- locked outside of the ghetto after dark, this Jew would be shot on site! In his effort to get back inside, Jakob stumbles upon 10 year old Lina Kronstein (Hannah Taylor Gordon), herself an escapee from a transport train on the way to a deathcamp. The sneak back in to safety and Jakob takes it upon himself to protect the girl who, if discovered, would be shipped right out. As were all the children in the ghetto.
Jakob ran a cafe at one time. He also "managed" a boxer named Mischa (Liev Schreiber) who came away from his career severely punch-drunk and prone to do stupid things that could get him killed. Trying to save his friend after one of those efforts, Jakob tells him the news he heard in the Commandant's office; the Russians aren't far off. Through a twisted logical chain, Mischa convinces himself that Jakob is in possession of an illegal radio and within a day, Jakob is elevated to hero status. The more he denies it, the more the community believe it to be so. The elder men of the community, which includes performances by Armin Mueller-Stahl, Bob Balaban, Michael Jeter and Alan Arkin have to decide what to do about this radio in their midst.
The performances are fine but the emphasis on Williams eventually works against the flick. You're not supposed to walk out of a Holocaust themed flick happy, but you can walk out hopeful -- as you may have after last year's Life Is Beautiful, which beat Jakob (finished in 1997) into the theaters. The hard sell here is to see Williams in the kind of role Oscar loves and that he's refined over the years -- a tearjerker character with a fine sense of humor. You know what you're getting as you walk in. But two hours of watching a repressive
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Jakob the Liar, he would have paid...
I split the baby on this. If you want to see it for Williams, you won't be disappointed. But, overall, it's not the knock down drag out film it hopes to be.
It is no coincidence that an English dubbed Life Is Beautiful is now in theaters . . .
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