A fourth review requested by K. Rice, with thanks for so many contributions to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

I quite clearly recall making time to watch The Life and Death of Peter Sellers on the night of its U.S. premiere in the late autumn of 2004, as an HBO telefilm, and promptly attending to the business of never really thinking about again. This response strikes me as fair but also horribly dismissive, which is the only way one can address such a slithery eel of a film. The Life and Death of Peter Sellers is neither fish nor fowl: it has all of the ingredients to be a cunning interrogation of the form of a bog-standard biopic, and it also has all of the ingredients to be a listless, unenjoyably prescriptive embodiment of the same, and it is in the end neither. It's a film that managed to play in competition at Cannes (to be sure, 2004 a weird year at Cannes: Shrek 2 was a fellow competition title, and Fahrenheit 9/11 won the Palme) before premiering Stateside on television without even the fig leaf of a one-week theatrical run.. A certain level of "what the goddamn hell is this" comes baked into the proceedings.

Anyway, what the hell it is is a whirlwind tour of the life of Peter Sellers, played by Geoffrey Rush. Perhaps you know Sellers as the star of films like The Pink Panther (1963), Dr. Strangelove (1964), and Being There (1979), and The Life and Death of Peter Sellers doesn't intend to have much to do with you if you don't; by the standards of Biopics About Legendary Mad Genius Artists, this one is unusually prone to taking the Genius for granted so it can train all of its attention on the Mad. There's an ecstatic rush to get through Sellers's career, blazing from his breakthrough with the radical surrealistic radio program The Goon Show in 1951 to being cast in the supporting role of Inspector Jacques Clouseau in The Pink Panther so quickly that we only get a mere flash of what his early career looked like. And when it gets to Clouseau, Dr. Strangelove & President Merkin Muffley, and other figures from his time as the 1960s hippest insane comic chameleon, the film presents them as they we already get why they're important. So allergic is it to explaining the nature of Sellers's work that it stages a vital scene in the middle of production on 1966's After the Fox, which gets treated with the same nods to its music and imagery that Dr. Strangelove gets, as though both of them are more or less equally familiar classics (at the same time, the film wants to get to the Greatest Hits enough that it speeds up again to all but erase the first half of the 1970s).

This is profoundly disorienting, but I don't actually think it's to the film's detriment. We've all seen plenty of movies about the sources and manifestations of Genius; they tend to be extraordinarily boring. The Life and Death of Peter Sellers is by no conceivable stretch of the imagination a great or particularly flawless movie, but its unusual emphases make it look practically avant-garde next to a biopic like the utterly lugubrious Ray, and that's without even leaving the biopics of 2004. And while we're visiting that cohort, while director Stephen Hopkins (whose career is an fascinatingly mixed bag: some horror here, a few action thrillers there, a lot of TV, the misbegotten Lost in Space feature, and sure, why not a Cannes competition berth?) strains to give the film much in a way of a visual style - and he does it get it there, it's just not very clean or elegant - and on his best day couldn't hope to compete with Martin Scorsese, as a written object, Peter Sellers's dime-store Freudianism isn't any less convincing than The Aviator's, and it's rather less untidy to boot.

Anyway, by putting Peter Sellers's artistry qua artistry in the background, the film can attend more closely to functioning as a character study than a tribute to the creative impulse. It's hardly any tribute at all, in fact: while Britt Ekland, Seller's second ex-wife, played by Charlize Theron in the film, complained that it made the man seem much too friendly and charming, I think those of us not watching our actual lives play out onscreen would be apt to agree that this Life and Death is pretty enthusiastic about presenting him as a generally terrible, profoundly unpleasant and casually cruel man. This is, in no small part, because of that aforementioned dime-store Freudianism: writers Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely (their first produced screenplay) aren't afraid to ladle out innuendo that Sellers was a perpetual toddler always acting out to win the robust laughter of his indulgent mother Peg (Miriam Margolyes). In case multiple scenes spelling this out weren't sufficient, during his wedding to Ekland, Peter impishly leans in reeeeal close to Peg's face to promise that the only reason he's wedding the Swedish sexpot is "because they won't let me marry you".

Psychoanalysis turns out to be more or less the thing that the film is most interested in, rarely more tediously than in that wedding scene. The whole project seems to owe its existence to the famous Sellers quote from his appearance on The Muppet Show in 1977: You see, there is no me, I do not exist. There used to be a me, but I had it surgically removed." For Markus & McFeely and the rest, Sellers attempted to fill his lack of a sense of self with his creation of wholly alien characters. In the film's most intriguing, though not its most successful gambit, he fills his lack of self by impersonating the other people in his life speaking in highly complimentary tones about his wonderfulness as a human being, and in addition to seeing Rush impersonating Sellers playing vivid caricatures, we get to see him impersonating Sellers playing mocking versions of Rush's own co-stars. There's a madcap, naughty impulse there that very nearly works, and probably could have, if the writers' didn't feel the need to retrench to safer territory with the Mommy obsession and the paint-by-numbers chronology. It's frustrating to see a film that apparently knows how to be more interesting than it is chickening out; and in this respect, at least, one can trace a line from this film right to Markus & McFeely's almost-challenging work as the go-to writers for the Captain America pictures.

The push-pull between what is interesting/challenging and what will reward the audience for knowing they're watching a biopic of a man who made famous movies goes far beyond the screenplay. Like I said, Hopkins certainly tries to make this stylistically unusual, and he sometimes succeeds: one of the first things you notice about the film is that each of the major "making of" sequences - The Pink Panther, Dr. Strangelove, After the Fox, Casino Royale (1967), The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976), Being There - copies the style of the film in question. If Peter Sellers was a personality-free chameleon, the film gamely attempts to follow his lead, and as far as it concerns his career, that's pretty neat. Things go a bit awry when Hopkins starts to pull in other references. There are scenes riffing on both 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Shining, on no apparent grounds other than that if Stanley Kubrick is a very minor character in your movie (played by Stanley Tucci), you might as well pretend it's a Kubrick biopic, too.

That all being said, while the film certainly lacks a clear stylistic focus, even clearer in its musical choices than its visual references (there's surely no good reason to drop "Space Oddity" into the movie), it's never as lazy as it easily good be. There are even some real treasures pieced in (the opening credits, a Pink Panther-esque cartoon with a multitude of Sellerses set to "What's New Pussycat", are especially delightful). And the whole thing is, at least, never disinterestingly shot by cinematographer Peter Levy. It traffics in a surprising amount of darkness and many half-silhouetted human forms, always latching onto the inherent gloomy darkness of its protagonist whenever it can possibly shake the sunny '60s chic.

At the very least, the film is a terrific actors' showcase. Very few people get a real chance to show off, mostly relegated to a few scenes: Emily Watson as Sellers's first wife Anne would win my best of show if only for her discomfited, then offended, than casually superior reactions to being made Peter's spirit guide and maternal figure even in the midst of their divorce. But Theron, radiating warm sensuality while making sure to foreground Ekland's sense of dignity and intelligence, comes in a close second, and Margolyes wins points just for being more restrained and internal than I've seen her in anything else, and for getting the best line delivery: "Both channels" she mutters with annoyance barely tinged on the edges with pride, while finding that her son's near-fatal heart attack is dominating the television. The men aren't quite as well off: Tucci's Kubrick is a smudge, barely in the movie and gifted with a major actor more because Kubrick was famous than because the script makes that kind of claim for his importance. Stephen Fry is given the least complex of the film's major characters as Sellers's personal fortune teller and professional advisor. John Lithgow is granted the relatively large role of Pink Panther director Blake Edwards, presented here as a superficial Hollywood charmer and schemer on top of being Sellers's career-long best frenemy, and Lithgow nails the requirements of the script; but it's hardly a challenging or unusual part.

Of course, these characters are all just the sideshow attractions: it's Rush that the film cares about, and Rush whose success or failure in the role is pretty much the determining factor as to whether the film works at all. He only superficially resembles Sellers, and only sounds like him when playing Strangelove and Chance the gardener (his Clouseau is passable, his President Muffley humiliatingly bad). I honestly can't say that The Life and Death of Peter Sellers wants, needs, or would benefit from a more precise bit of mimicry. Since the film's entire thrust is the idea that "Sellers" was just a construct built around a mercurial man-child's sense of terror at the world, having a central performance of Sellers that shows all the seams and lets Rush's own personality and voice seep in through the cracks feels right, somehow. Anybody who's ever seen Rush in anything can't help but be a little aware that we are watching Rush in a movie, not Sellers in his native environment; the distraction of seeing the beloved "phone call with Dimitri" bit from Dr. Strangelove played in such an off key turns our attention to the falseness of what's going on. I frankly don't know if this was anybody's intention, but it works to give The Life and Death of Peter Sellers an edge of meta-commentary; it's not exactly a Peter Sellers biopic, but an investigation into the potentiality of a Peter Sellers biopic.

Meanwhile, at the more conventional level of playing a character in a script, Rush is good or even great. He plays the delineation between Sellers's moments of jolly creativity (pretending to be a hobbled old man to win a part), his moments of smug viciousness (beaming amiably while he insults Edwards at the Pink Panther Strikes Again premiere), and his moments of pure venom (destroying his son's toys to make a point, barking Ekland off a film set) in such a way that we can see why the victims of the last of these would still be entranced by the first, while convincingly arguing that both comic genius and toxic selfishness could comfortably live inside the same skin. And he does it without falling into the biopic trap of suggesting that the genius or the selfishness necessarily have anything to do with one another. It's among the actor's career-best performances, even if the thing one would most expect to see here - the living embodiment of a famous person - is the thing most significantly absent. By no means does Rush "become" Sellers - but he does ground this film's sometimes reedy conception of Sellers in a sturdy, disarmingly human foundation.