Saturday, June 11, 2005

MOVIES: 'The Life And Death of Peter Sellers'

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I've always been fond of Peter Sellers, although I've only seen a fraction of the 74 movies he made before his early death at 55. His astounding versatility as a comedian, a mimic with little compare, made him watchable even in the most mediocre movies. At his peak — "Dr. Strangelove," "Being There," the "Pink Panther" flicks — he was unbeatable.

I recently rewatched the goofy "Return Of The Pink Panther," which I hadn't seen since I was a kid. Frankly, most of the scenes without Clouseau in these movies are hardly worth watching, but when Sellers is on camera, the madcap anarchy of his comedy still breaks me up. It's a shame Sellers' movies were rarely up to the quality of his talent.

I also read a biography of Sellers a few years ago, and like many artists, his overwhelming talent kept him from having a very happy life. Sellers was a fascinating character simply by his lack of self outside his characters – "There is no me. I do not exist. There used to be a me but I had it surgically removed," he once said. Now, a recent HBO movie attempts to explore the contradictions and tragedies of Sellers' life, in "The Life And Death of Peter Sellers."

This HBO production has some great things going for it, most notably a fantastic performance by Geoffrey Rush as Sellers. I wouldn't have twigged Rush to play him, but that uncanny actor sinks into Sellers' skin. He doesn't look a lot like Sellers, but once he puts on the makeup, you'd never know the difference. He captures both Sellers' essential blankness and the ferocious life he brought to his characters in several cunning re-enactments of his work. One pivotal scene shows Sellers, on set and in character as the crazed Dr. Strangelove, interacting with his mother and staying in character through her attempts to connect with him as a human being. Both on the set and off the set, Rush does an amazing job recreating the troubled Sellers. Also have to note Stanley Tucci, quite riveting in a brief appearance as Stanley Kubrick.

Unfortunately what sinks it is unfocused, pyrotechnic direction. Director Stephen Hopkins is clearly trying to emulate the madcap swingin' '60s sensibility of Sellers flicks like "What's New Pussycat," but it doesn't work well. He throws in breaking-of-the-fourth-wall, gonzo acid sequences, oddball flashbacks that feature Rush-as-Sellers impersonating characters in Sellers' life, such as his wife, mother, directors. I get what they're going for, but it seems self-indulgent. The movie races through Sellers' life and marriages at such a speedy pace little sinks in (the gorgeous, Oscar-winning Charlize Theron is utterly wasted as wife Britt Eklund). The nasty side of Sellers' character is given plenty of exposure, but you go away wanting a little more depth.

I guess in a way this movie is similar to Peter Sellers' own movies – good concept, utterly fantastic performance by the leading man, but the rest of the movie is wanting in comparison. For Sellers fans, it's worth checking out, but it would be hard for those who aren't fans to see what the man's strange appeal really was.

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