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Overall Rating

Awesome: 5.71%
Worth A Look: 34.29%
Pretty Bad: 0%
Total Crap: 2.86%

4 reviews, 11 user ratings

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Life and Death of Peter Sellers, The
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by W. Scott Gordon

"Geoffrey Rush Paints a Portrait of Tortured, Empty Genius"
3 stars

No doubt about it, HBO/BBC-produced biopic, "The Life and Death of Peter Sellers" is a superb showcase for Geoffrey Rush--what a fantastic performance! And the makeup is astonishing. Sellers was a chameleon in his own right, but this time I found myself asking, "Where's Geoffrey Rush?" or more appropriately, "Who's the REAL Geoffrey Rush?"

Having Rush intermittently become the gallery of characters in Sellers' life, whether they be movie characters (Inspector Clouseau and Dr. Strangelove, for a start) or real people ("Pink Panther's" underappreciated director and yes, even Sellers' own mother at one point) gave Rush the chance to show us his acting chops and give us a window into what Sellers' caricature-crammed mind might have looked like on the inside.

"Sellers" also works intriguingly as a disco-era period piece with cameos by well-known Hollywood personalities playing well-known Hollywood personalities. John Lithgow with 70s hair was especially good. Obviously, the producers of this film had fun with the postmodern aspects of it, the layers upon layers of intertextual reference.

That being said, like Jim Carrey's Andy Kaufman tribute, "Man on the Moon," this one left me cold. In both "Moon" and "Sellers", our suffering heroes admit that they are no more than empty vessels, men without personalities of their own. In Kaufman's case, this fact simply made for a sometimes funny, mostly quirky and short-lived career. Jim Carrey's wonky performance captured Kaufman's chameleon-like nothingness perfectly, but nobody explained why this would be in any way INTERESTING to watch. Nice that they can perfectly recreate scenes from 1970s-era "Saturday Night Live"and "Taxi" (both of which came a bit before my time, sadly), but they haven't convinced me I'd like to have dinner with the guy.

By no fault of Rush, I feel the same way about Peter Sellers. Is a brief explanation about Sellers' childhood, delivered by his father in a moment of fourth-wall-breaking character to audience awareness, supposed to make me sympathetic to the tragic aspects of his genius? Just because he was hysterically funny and versatile, was I supposed to forgive the fact of his being a jerk 95% of the time? Recalling a scene where Sellers' blindsides his director with mean-spirited and totally unfounded personal criticisms ("He's nothing but a hack, a middling talent!") in front of hundreds of people during a "Pink Panther" opening gala, I thought to myself: "If it were me up there listening to that, Sellers would've been off that balcony--then we could call the film "The (Premature) Death of Peter Sellers!" What an ass. Just as when Carrey's Kaufman complained about "Taxi", the very vehicle (pun intended) of his fame, scenes like this compelled me to think not about how people like that operate, but rather how in the world the people around them deal with it.

Speaking of the people who put up with Sellers: Apparently he had a lot of women in his life, and some of the actresses who played them deserve mention here. I have no idea who the gorgeous creature who played Sophia Loren is, but she gets my vote right away just for telling Sellers, albeit very delicately, to stuff it. Charlize Theron, who plays Sellers' second wife Britt Ekland...has simply NEVER convinced me in any role. I confess to not having seen "Monster" yet, but suffice it to say that, hotness aside, Theron's supposed genius was not in evidence here. Maybe knowing next to nothing about Britt's real life didn't help, but I really couldn't tell where she was from or who she was supposed to be (she's a Swedish actress, by the by). The standout scene between them, whether completely true or not, was Seller's wacky marriage proposal--what a brilliant way to indicate his over-the-top charm and yes, madness.

Sellers' mother obviously thought she understood him, pushed him relentlessly to be his best, and ultimately got far more than she bargained for. I loved the scene just after she has an awkward lunch with Sellers-as-Dr. Strangelove; he has chosen not to deal with her by burrowing deep within the doomsaying hobbit's character. Her limo driver later asks after his health and she replies, "I don't know...I didn't see him." Oh, to mourn the loss of a son, and a mind, to fame and narcissism. Freud meets Frankenstein, anyone?

The one woman who was neither a star nor star struck, but seemed to truly understand who Sellers was at his core ("A selfish, childish little shit of a boy"), his first wife Anne, was played with quiet dignity and patience by Emily Watson. If that is indeed how the REAL Anne Sellers navigated through the turbulent waters of his frequent tantrums and affairs, finally deciding it would be best to take the kids and get out but nonetheless staying on as his confidante throughout his life, then I have to really admire her while at the same time asking, "Why?" I would have liked to see more scenes of their earlier life together, back even before Sellers was "slumming it" on radio, to see what attracted her to him in the first place. Lack of emotional signposts like these diminish the film's dramatic punch.

As the movie ends, rounding off as Sellers completes what he felt was his most fitting film role as Chance the Gardener in "Being There" (not surprisingly, as a man with zero affect--no personality), I was getting mixed messages from the filmmakers. Was Sellers' Christ like walk-on-water scene as Chance, lifted directly from the end of the actual film, an indication of how we are supposed to regard him? Or rather, was that how he would have liked to regard himself? The head-scratching conclusion, obviously intending to provoke thought, instead provoked annoyance in this critic.

To his credit, Geoffrey Rush totally convinced me of his own extraordinary talent here. But I'd rather see "The Pink Panther" and than learn about Seller's life, during which it seemed even HE was selling himself as a misunderstood, ultimately empty genius.

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originally posted: 08/24/08 18:55:17
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 Sydney Film Festival. For more in the 2004 Sydney Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 Brisbane Film Festival. For more in the 2004 Brisbane Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

5/23/09 art DEPRESSING! 1 stars
2/16/07 Vip Ebriega If you thought his films were funny, wait 'till you see Peter Sellers' life behind camera. 4 stars
2/22/06 tatum Well done, and a little uncomfortable; Rush is perfection 4 stars
10/05/05 Jesse Taylor If you don't know Seller's career, you may get bored easily. 4 stars
2/07/05 Steve Michaud Rush is outstanding, but the film lacks any real depth or insight into Sellers the man 3 stars
9/21/04 Kate Condon Brilliant 5 stars
9/16/04 lou top film 5 stars
9/11/04 alien assassin One of Geoffrey Rush's best performances. Pity we didn't see more of Clouseau !!! 4 stars
9/08/04 Huge Harold Rush's performance simply stunning. Will revisit some of Sellers' films 4 stars
8/28/04 john bale More Rush than Peter Sellers, better if they had some original film clips. 3 stars
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  DVD: 10-May-2005



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