The Life and Death of Peter Sellers (15)

Tears of a clown

Nothing dates quite like comedy. Forty years from now people may wonder why we laughed so hard at Ricky Gervais, just as most people casting back 40 years to Peter Sellers's heyday may sit stony-faced through The Goon Show. So there's a reasonable fear that this new biopic, for all its formal inventiveness, may well receive a bemused or even indifferent reception from today's cinema-going public. Fans will be mostly saddened by the exposure of the clay feet, while everybody else will be nonplussed as to why this petulant egomaniac was considered a "comic genius".

The Life and Death of Peter Sellers makes a virtue of the fact that its subject was difficult to know; indeed, it is partly a rumination on the unreliable nature of the biopic itself. The screenplay, by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, plays games with impersonation, and presents a kind of paradox: it's the story of a man who tormented himself because he never felt sure he had a self. Geoffrey Rush, at 53, is only a year younger than Sellers was at his death, yet through make-up and a remarkable physical approximation, he catches an almost eerie likeness. When the performance demands a disguise - and Sellers spent much of his life in disguise - it is sometimes impossible to tell them apart.

Rush evidently feels a deep sympathy for the man, though this doesn't stop him from portraying Sellers as a virtual sociopath, alternately terrorising and spoiling his two children, throwing brattish tantrums, and vandalising his home on discovering his first wife Anne's infidelity - an affair he had connived at. (Emily Watson does another turn as patron saint of the long-suffering.) When he falls for his co-star Sophia Loren (Sonia Aquino) he explains to the family why he's leaving. "Don't you love us?" asks his young daughter. "Of course I do," he protests, "just not as much as I love Sophia Loren."

The root of the problem, as the film sees it, was a fiercely ambitious mother (Miriam Margolyes) who enabled and encouraged his selfishness. "A star has an obligation to himself - family just weighs you down," she announces. When Sellers refuses to go to her as she lies dying, one has the strong impression of a parent reaping what she has sown.

What saves this from being a monotonous catalogue of turpitude are the fantasy impersonations Sellers will occasionally slip into; thus, on a whim, he will suddenly become his wife, his mother, his fraudulent "psychic" adviser (Stephen Fry) or his two star directors, Stanley Kubrick and Blake Edwards. He relied on pretending as much for his emotional life as for his professional one; he was a vessel into which other characters and personae were poured until they brimmed over. It is as if he made himself up as he went along, yet still couldn't hide the disfiguring vacancy at his centre.

The single time he seems truly happy - his first six weeks with Britt Ekland (Charlize Theron) - sours once he re-dedicates himself to his career; soon he's throwing his new wife off set because their mewling infant has upset his concentration.

Edwards, nicely played by John Lithgow, says of Sellers, "It was like watching a cobra - you were mesmerised." But the snake's charm has worn off. Rush, committing himself to the role magnificently, suggests a certain madcap gift for mimicry that directors loved and the public responded to - for a while - but it never seems worth the tidal waves of rage and insecurity that followed in its wake.

Not even Sellers's long struggle with a heart condition can salvage much pathos, and the razzle-dazzle pyrotechnics that director Stephen Hopkins stages as Sellers undergoes a near-death experience are brilliant but empty. It's rather hard to care when that heart has been made to look, for most of its owner's life, untouchable.

More stressed souls are evident in the week's docu-, or, if you will, rocku-mentary, Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, which catches the most successful heavy metal band in the world at a crisis point. Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky were planning to chronicle the making of Metallica's new album, St Anger, when the wheels began to come off: the bass player quit, the drummer caused a PR catastrophe by denouncing the internet music service Napster, and the lead singer disappeared into rehab - for a year. "When sorrows come, they come not single spies..." So the remaining members hired a "therapist/performance enhancement coach" to help work out some issues and prevent the band from disintegrating altogether.

Is it possible to discuss this movie without mentioning This is Spinal Tap? I think not, and even if it isn't nearly as funny as that film, there are distinct consonances in the main trio. The drummer, Lars Ulrich, is the bumptious counterpart to Nigel Tufnel; the volatile lead singer, James Hetfield, is the band's David St Hubbins; and the guitarist, Kirk Hammett, is the dopey go-between Derek Smalls, trying to keep a lid on personal differences for the sake of the greater good - rock.

There are splendid moments, such as Lars's father trashing the band's latest efforts, Kirk burbling on about his "ego-less" state and James, the most articulate and thoughtful of them, hurrying from band-therapy to catch his daughter's ballet lesson. The central puzzle - other than how a band that makes a noise this unpleasant can sell 90 million albums - concerns their untiring ability to talk about perfectly straightforward problems at incredible length. It's a question the therapist, charging $40,000 a month, understandably declines to raise.

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