It’s close but no cigar for “The Life and Death of Peter Sellers,” an adventurously conceived biopic of the late comic actor that, in the end, just doesn’t convince. Geoffrey Rush gives it the old college try in the title role, a man portrayed as a brilliant mimic and chameleon but a first-class s.o.b. who brought little but grief to his intimates. Latest HBO/BBC film collaboration sustains interest most of the way, but combination of an unsympathetic central figure and patchy recreation of events involving numerous famous people makes for an ambitiously told life story that finally doesn’t cut it. Theatrical B.O. prospects in most markets would seem iffy for a production that might look somewhat better on the small screen.
Inspired by Roger Lewis’ Sellers biography, which goes uncredited onscreen, script by first-timers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely takes an unconventional approach, focusing on the subject’s bad behavior toward his colleagues and supposed loved ones and having Sellers periodically take on other people’s personalities so he can comment on his own actions.
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Strategy is intriguing and film cannot be accused of lacking a strong view of the man it examines. But after clearly laying out its thesis early on–that Sellers was far more comfortable in the disguise offered by his many fictional characters than he was in his own skin, and that in personal relations he could always be counted upon to be selfish, abusive and unreliable–remainder of the story consists largely of repeated confirmations of these dominant traits.
Furthermore, director Stephen Hopkins, possibly misapplying habits he picked up on the TV show “24,” keeps the camera bobbing about in jittery fashion most of the time, to annoying effect that feels too contemporary, as well as inappropriate to the period and fashion of filmmaking with which Sellers is associated. When Hopkins is finally forced to nail his camera down to recreate scenes from “Dr. Strangelove,” the sense of stability comes as a huge relief, but it doesn’t last long.
Sense that something is off begins with the opening credits. It was a fine idea to illustrate them with fanciful animation in “Pink Panther”/”Casino Royale” fashion with Tom Jones singing “What’s New Pussycat?” on the soundtrack. But the pop/psychedelic results aren’t very stylish or fun. It’s the same story all the way through; one feels the filmmakers are on the right track, but the execution just isn’t sharp enough. Partly, the problem is endemic to this sort of project, a life story filled with people whose screen images are fixed in the public mind. It’s also an issue, however, of not completely realizing the project’s potential, of not pushing relentlessly until the all-important details are gotten entirely right.
Bio starts in 1957, when Sellers was just achieving fame on BBC radio’s wildly popular “The Goon Show.” Screen roles and stardom soon followed for this ordinary looking man in his mid-30s who had a pushy, hovering mum (a fine Miriam Margolyes), retiring dad (Peter Vaughan), supportive wife Anne (Emily Watson) and two kids.
As presented here, things begin to change when Sellers, in the early ’60s, stars in a picture opposite Sophia Loren (the amply statuesque Sonia Aquino). The Italian bombshell turns him inside out, all the moreso for not sleeping with him despite his desperate efforts. All the same, Sellers callously tells his wife and young children that he loves Sophia more than he does them, then promptly screws Sophia’s stand-in, all of which prompts the crack-up of his marriage. Whatever the real-life truth of this episode may be, the “affair” is presented as a figment of Sellers’ imagination that assumed greater importance than the feelings of his family, something the actor comments when he assumes the physical guise of Anne, with Rush made up to look like her, as he subsequently is to resemble others in his life.
Some of Sellers’ well known quirks–his obsessive home movie shooting, fancy cars, interest in fortune telling and avoidance of “bad luck” colors–are layered in, and the action, along with his life, picks up when he reluctantly replaces Peter Ustinov in “The Pink Panther,” his first big American movie. Good comic mileage is gotten out of Sellers’ trying out his Inspector Clouseau accent on the flight to film the picture in Rome, and Rush’s reenactment of one classic scene is on target.
Recreation of a key scene from “Dr. Strangelove” reveals what that film would have looked like in color, and while buffs will pick up on the import of a scene in which Sellers, insisting that three roles are enough, complains that he can’t figure out how to perform the fourth (the bomb-riding cowboy eventually played by Slim Pickens), Stanley Tucci doesn’t do much with his turn as Kubrick, not even trying to replicate the director’s pronounced Bronx accent.
Pic hits its stride depicting the actor’s relationship with his second wife, blond knockout Britt Ekland (vivaciously played by Charlize Theron). Behaving like an eager schoolboy around her and practically doing cartwheels in an antic effort to keep her amused, Sellers manages to win Ekland’s affections and mentions more than once how “phenomenal” she is in bed. But apparently she was a little too phenomenal, as Sellers suffers a heart attack that leaves him technically dead for more than a minute before he’s revived.
A very funny scene has Ekland telling her husband she’s pregnant while he’s taking a dump in the bathroom. But it all goes downhill fast after the baby’s born and the couple work together on a picture; Sellers turns on her with utterly unmoti-vated verbal and physical abuse. Ekland section excels not only because of the intensity of the drama involved but because it presents the entire arc of a relationship, something absent elsewhere.
For Sellers and the film, it’s mostly downhill from here, as thesp agrees to resurrect Clouseau for the money while awaiting the chance to do his dream project, “Being There,” about a man with no personality. Ignoring Sellers’ third and fourth marriages entirely and showing him aging very quickly, last stretch does provide a vivid picture of the actor’s increasingly unpleasant love-hate relationship with director Blake Edwards, who’s given an energetic, slightly vulgar reading by John Lithgow, a man far taller and bulkier than the genuine article.
Not long after finally realizing “Being There” with a career-crowning performance, Sellers died, in 1980, at only 54. Ultimately, it’s a sad story, with final credits pro-viding such off-putting information that he left his children only $2000 apiece.
Naturally, the picture rests to a great extent on Rush’s shoulders. Made up to resemble the subject pretty closely, thesp very adeptly recapitulates some of Sellers’ most famous characterizations and copes ably with the daunting task of fleshing out a man the project argues had the personality of an immature, albeit very horny boy, with little to recommend him out-side his talent. Hints of a nasal Aussie twang leak out of Rush’s mouth from time to time.
Production also suffers from a soft visual style that marks it as television venture rather than a full-blown theatrical feature; production and costume design help put the period over in modest strokes, but lensing lacks richness and color.
Lively music soundtrack reps a plus.