Reviewed by Colin Jacobson
Columbia-TriStar, widescreen 1.85:1/16x9, standard 1.33:1, languages: English DD 5.1 [CC], subtitles: English, double side-single layer, 28 chapters, rated PG-13, 120 min., $27.95, street date 3/21/2000.
Directed by Peter Kassovitz. Starring Robin Williams, Alan Arkin, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Liev Schreiber, Hannah Taylor-Gordon, Eva Igo.
In Nazi-occupied Poland during World War II, poor Jewish cafe owner Jakob Heym accidentally overhears a forbidden radio news bulletin signaling Soviet military success against German forces. To combat the overwhelming depression and suicide that pervades the ghetto, Jakob invents fictitious news bulletins about Allied advances against the Nazis. These lies keep hope and humor alive among the ghetto inhabitants--spirits are lifted, hearts are refreshed, and optimism is reborn. The Germans learn of the mythical radio and begin a search for the hero who dares operate it.
Regular readers of the DVD MovieGuide may have noted my periodic rants against the touchy-feely turn Robin Williams' career has taken over the last decade. Less and less do we see any sign of the comic presence he once exerted; now he's all smarmy self-righteousness.
Jakob the Liar appeared to be another cringe-inducing example of this tendency. Happily, it's not that bad. No, I wouldn't call JTL a good film by any stretch of the imagination, but while it never approaches the level of strong Williams efforts like Good Will Hunting and Dead Poets Society, it certainly steers clear of the sentimental excesses of stinkers such as Patch Adams - probably Williams' all-time worst film - and Bicentennial Man.
JTL actually plays like a bit of a rip-off of Life Is Beautiful, though that description probably isn't fair since JTL comes from a 1969 novel and also inspired a German film version in 1976. Whatever the case, similarities between the two seem clear: a semi-comic tale that depicts attempts to maintain hope in the face of Nazi oppression. Both also show us parental figures who try to keep the truth from children.
I didn't like LIB, mainly because I thought the film's tone seemed somewhat inappropriate for the subject matter; it just came a little too close to Hogan's Heroes territory. The same issue occurs during JTL as well, though I didn't find it to be as severe a concern. Yeah, at times the movie seems more like a meeting of the Friars Club - what with all those heavy accents and Borscht Belt schtick - but I wasn't as bothered by it; maybe since LIB already took that path, it's less problematic here.
However, while both films attempt humor, I found neither to be funny. That's not because of any outrage over injecting comedy into such a dire situation; it's because I just didn't think any of the jokes were good. JTL tends toward gentle, easy-to-digest jokes that might make some folks laugh but never display any spark.
The same can be said for the film itself. It's a competently-made, decently-performed piece that moves along at an acceptable pace through its largely predictable conclusion, and that's about it. Did I like this movie more than I thought I would? Definitely - I expected to loathe it. But I didn't, and I actually found it to be moderately enjoyable at times. That ain't a ringing endorsement, though.
The best thing about JTL has to be its cast. In addition to Williams, we see solid professionals like Alan Arkin, Armin Mueller-Stahl and Bob Balaban. Their appearances mean a lot to the movie. None are particularly good, mind you, but there's a certain spark that this group brings to the project; somehow just having them there makes it more interesting, as if their past work translates into more current success. It doesn't really, but the inclusion of such a strong supporting group definitely helps.
Is Jakob the Liar a film I ever plan to watch again or one I liked? Nope, but it's also not a bad piece of work if you go for this kind of film. It's not one I'll really recommend, but I can't steer you away from it either. (Yes, I am wishy-washy. At least I think I'm wishy-washy - I'm not really sure...)
Jakob the Liar appears in both its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and in a fullscreen version on this double-sided, single-layered DVD; the image on the letterboxed side has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. As so often is the case, Columbia-Tristar (CTS) have produced a DVD with an outstanding picture; JTL looks absolutely great from start to finish.
Sharpness seems impeccable; at no point during the film did I discern even the slightest hints of softness. Moiré effects never appeared, and I saw no jagged edges as well. Really, the worst problem I noticed came from some small artifacts related to the anamorphic downconversion on my 4X3 TV, and even these were rather minor; I found them most severe during a scene in which we see tiny swastikas on a map, and that was about it. If the print presented any flaws, I couldn't see them; I noted no signs of grain, speckles, scratches or any other faults in the source print.
As one would expect of this kind of film, JTL presents an extremely flat and bland palette of colors - somehow I think a lavish Technicolor array would be inappropriate - and it favors shades of gray and brown. These tones seem very well-reproduced, and whenever brighter hues do appear - such as some red dresses toward the end of the film - they look quite bold and vibrant. Black levels look dark and smooth, and shadow detail displays appropriate deepness with no loss of image. Because of the drabness of the content, JTL won't be a film you'll use to dazzle friends, but it nonetheless offers a terrific image.
I also found the movie's Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack to provide a surprisingly strong experience. Not surprisingly, the audio mainly adheres to the front channels, but it also gives some effective surround support. You won't hear much in the way of split surrounds, but the rears offer some good ambience and also back up the score well. The imaging in the front three speakers is really quite good, with some well-spaced sounds that pan nicely across the channels.
While the imaging is decent, though, it's the audio quality that really kicks this track up a notch. The sound seems consistently excellent in all regards. Although some of the dialogue displays a "dubbed" quality, it still sounds exceptionally clear and natural; even with the affected accents of the actors, it always remained easily intelligible. Effects appeared very well-defined and realistic, with some excellent low end as well; whenever the train appears, it really chugs across the screen with a hefty presence. Edward Shearmur's score also displayed terrific clarity and showed a nice range in its dynamics. Again, you won't use JTL to demo your sound system, but its soundtrack works very well.
The DVD release of Jakob the Liar doesn't offer enough supplements to qualify as a full-fledged special edition, but there are a few nice pieces here. First up is an audio commentary from director Peter Kassovitz. Like his film, this track is mildly interesting but generally not terribly engaging. Kassovitz does a competent job of detailing the production - in particular, he mentions a lot of deleted scenes - but the commentary seems fairly flat; I made it through it, but it was a pretty dull ride.
Another audio feature on this DVD offers Edward Shearmur's score isolated onto its own track. I'm not really much of a fan of movie music, but I understand why others are, and I think this makes for a nice feature; more DVDs should include it.
The DVD offers a six minute and 20 second featurette about the film. If you're thinking this is just another one of those banal and tedious promotional puff pieces... well, you'd be right. The featurette mainly shows clips of the movie plus some very brief interview shots of the actors and the director. That is, I guess it's the director; none of the shots identifies the speaker, which is fine when it's Williams but makes less sense with more obscure participants. In any case, it's a forgettable piece.
Finally, some DVD standbys round out this collection. We find the usual (almost useless) talent files for the director and four of the actors - CTS provide the worst biographies in the DVD business. The booklet that comes with the package provides some brief but interesting production notes as well. No trailer? That's right - it doesn't make the cut.
Jakob the Liar offers a fairly typical example of the Robin Williams school of mushy weepers, but it's not as bad as one might expect and it positively shines when compared to his worst offenders. I didn't much like the movie, but it kept me moderately involved. The DVD provides terrific picture and sound plus some decent extras. I can't strongly recommend it, b ut it might be worth a rental if you find the subject compelling.
Current as of 3/10/2000
Official Site--Includes production notes, cast bio, stills, and trailer clips.
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