Hope. Hope divine, hope springs eternal, Star Wars: A New Hope, Hope Lange, the Hope Diamond, Bob Hope. You can’t help it— hope’s what buckjumps into your head while you’re immersed in the feel-good gravy that is Jakob the Liar, Robin Williams’s newest expression of his own saintliness. Bringing hope, chuckles, and joy to the Vietnam War and cancer-morbid children was just the warmup; bringing a smile and maybe a rueful tear to the Holocaust is the main event.
Yes, hope as looming and insurmountable as, well, a mountain of teeth. Holocaust heart-warmers have become big business, but it’s not too late to be properly qualmish about the ongoing cultural project dedicated to making corpse-piled recent history safe and delicious for middle-class moviegoers. Jakob the Liar, from the sharp-tongued Jurek Becker novel, succeeds in being less Benigni-rific than stale, menschy schmaltz, and though Williams is The Clown That’s Still Crying, he owes little to that Jerry Lewis ghost film and more to grandpa Jonathan Winters, improvising routines from kitchenware and doing Churchill impressions. As Jakob, a ghetto Jew during the Occupation who tells his neighbors about a radio broadcast overheard in the Gestapo’s office (the Russians are coming!) and then must concoct a litany of stories afterward to keep their spirits up, Williams has at least the opportunity to be beleaguered by history. His compulsive laugh-getting emerges mostly with Lina (the dreary Hannah Taylor Gordon), a 10-year-old orphan whose secret shelter in Jakob’s attic gives the latke maker concern when everybody, including the Gestapo, wants his hidden radio, which doesn’t exist.
But Robin keeps on tikkun. Jakob the Liar, written and directed by Peter Kassovitz (father of Mathieu, who shows up, and a prolific manufacturer of French TV movies) and shot in the usual Holocaust catalogue tones of charcoal, olive, and taupe, avoids sick-making uplift until the coda, but avoids emotional wounds as well. Even the casting— sarcastic patriarch Alan Arkin, nervous barber Bob Balaban, bullying yenta Liev Schreiber— telegraphs a Borschty lightness (“That schmendrick Hitler!”), and the Nazis are Indiana Jones villains. Things get truly dire when Lina goes feverish, and wizened doctor Armin Mueller-Stahl tells Williams that the best medicine for her is more cock-and-bull stories.
The implication at this point seems to be that the world in general could heal its many wounds if only we let Robin Williams twist the truth. But Jakob the Liar also feels creepily like an unconscious metaphor for Williams’s entire career: he will say or do anything at all to please us, even if martyrdom is his reward. We can only hope.