Hot on the heels of Life Is Beautiful comes another sentimental feel-gooder that uses the Holocaust as a questionable backdrop for its simplistic affirmation of the human spirit. If Jakob The Liar is to be believed, the ghettos of Eastern Europe were not places of untold hardship and misery, but jolly settlements where well-meaning innocents could spread false information right under the noses of their Nazi captors.
Williams, who shares Roberto Benigni's capacity to stay chipper in the most trying of circumstances, has cracked wise in the war zone (Good Morning Vietnam), the cancer ward (Patch Adams) and in Hell itself (What Dreams May Come), so it's not surprising he can keep his spirits up even when millions are being exterminated around him. There are times, though, when laughter is not the best medicine, and director Peter Kassovitz and co-writer Didier Decoin should have considered this before letting their irrepressible star loose on such a sensitive part of history.
To be fair, Jakob doesn't set out to offend. It's just that there are some abominations you can't take liberties with. If it had been as easy to escape from the death-camp cattle cars as young Lina (Hannah Taylor Gordon) finds it, many more little girls might have lived to tell the tale.
Jakob's improvised bulletins afford Williams the opportunity to riff wittily, and seasoned talents like Arkin and Mueller-Stahl give the fanciful screenplay more credibility than it deserves. It's a pity, though, that Kassovitz sees fit to saddle Robin with a cute kid, or accompany grim visuals with jauntily inappropriate kletzmer music.
As a moral fable, Jakob The Liar just about works. Compared with Schindler's List or the documentary The Last Days, however, it's embarrassingly shallow.