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YOU HAVE to forgive great comics like Roberto Benigni and Robin Williams. They know how healing is the gift they give us. Even when we don't tell them, they can see it. They know how even our worst misery can be lightened with the laughs they cause. The lame, the halt, the condemned and the dying can all respond to a clown when he's inspired enough. The worse the predicament, in fact, the more comics are loved.

Who can blame them, then, when they feel they can take on the Holocaust, the defining atrocity of the century we're about to leave?

Forget Roberto Benigni for a minute. Jerry Lewis, who, at his best, could wring laughs out of a dead rhododendron, was the first to consider it in a mythical movie catastrophe called "The Day the Clown Cried." When people first heard his intentions 30 years ago, they thought it was a sick Lenny Bruce joke.

I admired Roberto Benigni, then, for having the guts to try to laugh the Holocaust away in "Life Is Beautiful." I went into the movie with high hopes. I came out of it disgusted and a bit angry. It was too simple-minded to be anything but dangerous. There is a difference between a "fable" and a story that stupidly miniaturizes inconceivable suffering.

To even further give the devil his due, it's important to know that Robin Williams wanted to make "Jakob the Liar" long before Roberto Benigni's "Life Is Beautiful." It is every bit as bad a film as I was afraid it would be.

Not everyone will think so. The more chronological distance between us and the Holocaust -- more than a half-century now -- the less stake people have in it and the less sense they can make of atrocity on such an inconceivable scale. Ninety-eight percent of Americans alive now not only have no living relatives who went through it but don't know anyone who does. All they know is the massive historical event, which always makes for a dandy backdrop to dramatic emotion and action.

In "Jakob the Liar," it's merely the backdrop for Williams' mawkish and increasingly gruesome megalomania about the comic's mission in the world. It turns the Holocaust into a prop that a bunch of actors play with and that Williams can transform into a device to show us the loving humanity that pours out of his every pore.

He plays Jakob, a former cafe owner in a 1944 Polish ghetto where "the little things" get everyone through the day -- a "dark joke, a sunny day."

One day, his stupid boxer friend (Liev Schrieber) gets it into his head that Jakob is illegally harboring a radio on which he gets nightly reports on the triumphant advance of the Allied armies. Jakob insists he merely overheard a scrap of encouraging news on the Nazi commandant's radio, but no one believes him. Soon he is inventing radio broadcasts to get people through one more day. During the period of Jakob's "broadcasts," all ghetto suicides cease. He brings hope to the hopeless.

This, then, is Jerry Lewis' old fable about the power of clowns to laugh away horror.

People who don't have much of a sense of the Holocaust -- especially those who don't really want one -- may find "Jakob the Liar" entertaining, even inspiring. To the rest it will look, at best, like the kind of actor's overreach you sometimes saw in the early days of TV. The actors in this movie are never in any danger of seeming real. They're just actors "doing" ghetto Jews the way Rich Little "does" Johnny Carson (or 5,000 Vegas impersonators "do" Elvis). They all bounce and swagger around the ghetto in radiantly perfect physical health, as if they were consuming 2,500 calories a day. It shrinks into inconsequence a kind of evil whose massiveness shouldn't be tampered with.

Who can blame Williams -- a good man and a great comic -- for wanting to inject the comic's ethic into history? Why not make a "Good Morning Holocaust"? Or set up an overblown "Comic Relief" skit in a Polish ghetto?

Because suffering on such a scale ought to be sacred is one reason. It should inspire awe and terror, not cozy familiarity and uplift. And because, for an even better reason, too many people -- including Williams' friend Steven Spielberg in "Schindler's List" -- have already shown how to make great films out of such horror without shrinkage.

Ultimately it isn't the Holocaust that is diminished by "Jakob the Liar," it's Williams and everyone else in the film with him.

Jakob the Liar

Rating: **

Robin Williams, left, as a ghetto dweller who everyone thinks has a radio. Co-starring Liev Schreiber and Armin Mueller-Stahl. Directed by Peter Kassovitz.

Rated R, opening today in area theaters.

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