One of the main reasons Life worked -- and, it should be mentioned, it didn't work for everybody -- is that Benigni established a fanciful world and then went for broke. He didn't stop to comment on the tragedy of his situation because the drama is what raised the comic stakes. Jakob doesn't go off with the wild abandon that would make it both heartbreaking and hilarious. Director Peter Kassovitz has muted the proceedings with self-conscious pathos and too many close-ups of a pensive, overburdened Williams; a somber scene with Williams imitating a radio broadcast to cheer a young orphan girl threatens to become Good Morning, Vietnam. The film is not propelled by its comic invention, and results in hitting a dramatic peak without ever having reached a corresponding comedic high. The comedy portion ends, and it's suddenly time to see Jakob bloodied but unbowed.
Williams is hard-working and mostly restrained here, but he's the wrong person to carry this sort of thing. He's too well known to blend into the ensemble, and he's not enough of a comic persona, like Benigni's clown, to sustain a broad illusion. He is accompanied by an ideal cast: Armin Mueller-Stahl, Alan Arkin, Liev Schreiber, and a fine turn from Bob Balaban as Kowalsky, a suicidal barber and Jakob's harried best friend. Balaban aside, though, the supporting characters are sketched in with the same timidity that fells the rest of the picture.
Jakob the Liar is ultimately a risky film that doesn't take enough risks.