The Life and Death of Peter Sellers is just like Peter Sellers himself: not exactly sure what it is, but determined to distract the audience with such energy and crazy ideas that they won’t even notice.
Directed with obvious passion by Stephen Hopkins, the film takes us through Sellers’ life, beginning with his days on the British radio sketch program “The Goon Show” and hitting all the major events thereafter: costarring with Sophia Loren, his heyday with The Pink Pantherfilms and Dr. Strangelove, and his comeback from doing commercials to starring in his passion project Being There. His rocky personal life is on display here as well; both marriages portrayed end in divorce and he struggles quietly against his insensitive stage mother.
The Peter Sellers here may shock some of his most dedicated fans. Inhabited brilliantly by Geoffrey Rush, he is at times thoughtless and cruel, given to angry outbursts toward his family and coworkers. He’s also somewhat delusional, relying on a fortune-teller for advice and believing the intoxicating but off-limits Sophia Loren is interested in him while they film The Millionairess (she’s not).
The latter leads to one of the most stunning moments of the film; Sellers has just told his first wife, Anne (Emily Watson) and their two children that he’s leaving the family for the actress, and when his daughter asks if he still loves them, he responds indignantly, “I do love you – just not as much as Sophia Loren.” Whether or not the real Sellers ever said it, it’s pretty difficult to like him much after that.
Sellers can be charming, even irresistible, but only when he’s playing a character, and it’s here that Rush really gets a chance to shine. His task is not only to play Sellers, but to play Sellers playing his most iconic roles: Inspector Clouseau, who Sellers invents on a plane ride in one of the film’s best scenes, the multiple roles in Dr. Strangelove and even the simplistic Chauncey Gardner in Being There. Rush triumphs with what could have been merely half a dozen impersonations; instead, he never allows us to forget the real man behind each costume and funny voice.
Rush’s performance works in tandem with the film’s point of view – that while Sellers could create fantastic characters, he never knew who he was himself – but the same cannot be said about the entire film around him. Working from Roger Lewis’s book, Hopkins and writers Christopher and Stephen McFeely meditate on this theme through many fanciful and surreal conceits. Some of them work. An animated title sequence suggests the whimsy ahead and the film’s soundtrack is delightfully quirky. But others seem haphazard and, though wildly creative, merely distract from the film’s more traditional biopic format.
For instance, at key moments throughout the film, Rush briefly adopts the identity of other characters (Sellers’ father, his mother, Dr. Strangelove director Stanley Kubrick) and speaks directly to the camera about Sellers. Why was this deemed necessary? It merely sidetracks us from the story and doesn’t provide much additional insight. We also go inside Sellers’s mind for a few dream sequences, which feature stunning visuals, but again, the creativity seems misplaced.Ultimately, it feels as though the film toggles between two versions of itself: the familiar biopic, showing Sellers’s personal and professional life as it may have actually happened (as with all biopics, “may have” is key), and the surreal, showing an editorialized, imagined world that represents the filmmakers’ abstract ideas of Sellers. In the absence of choosing one of the above and sticking with it, the filmmakers never quite find their rhythm within the film.
Still, Sellers’s world here is exciting and dramatic, filled with colorful people played by a fantastic supporting cast. John Lithgow’s Blake Edwards seems the closest Sellers has to a real friend, and yet their insult-filled relationship is far from perfect. Stanley Tucci as Stanley Kubrick shows admirable restraint as the master director who pushes Sellers to his limit onDr. Strangelove. Charlize Theron even gets in a good fight scene as Sellers’s second wife Britt Ekland.
But the scene with the biggest impact features Sellers’s mother Peg (Miriam Margolyes), who has come to the set of Dr. Strangelove to visit her son. After their bizarre lunch, which will not be spoiled here, Peg’s driver asks her how her visit with Peter went. “I don’t know,” she muses. “I didn’t see him.”
The simple scene is The Life and Death of Peter Sellers at its very best: surprising, moving, and haunting – no special effects or out-of-the-box ideas necessary. In the end, it seems, the filmmakers struggled with the very question that they propose plagued Peter Sellers – how to find your true self in the midst of one great imagination.