The Life and Death of Peter Sellers (Sunday, HBO, 9 p.m. ET) is an odd duck of a biopic: brilliantly executed, yet curiously empty. In that sense, it mirrors its subject. This film, based on the biography of the same name by Roger Lewis, presents Sellers (uncannily embodied by Geoffrey Rush) as a man whose eerie gift for mimicry sprang from an inner sense of emptiness, suggesting that Sellers was able to be whoever he wanted because he felt like nobody at all. Sellers’ one-time colleague on BBC radio, the British comic Spike Milligan, captured this paradox when, in an interview, he called Sellers “the most complex simpleton in the world.”
Sellers grew up an only child in a vaudeville family, dragged from town to town by his pathologically doting Jewish mother, Peg (played here by Miriam Margolyes). This film paints the adult Sellers as a consummate narcissist, a brilliant and charming skirt-chaser with an infantile lack of self-control. Harboring a delusional conviction that Sophia Loren (Sonia Aquino) is in love with him, for example, he leaves his wife and children for her, only to be rejected by the confused actress. Later, he marries the Swedish starlet Britt Ekland (played by a ravishing Charlize Theron) after a three-week courtship fueled by amyl nitrate poppers and wild sex. Three-quarters of the way through the film, Sellers has become the archetypal Biopic Man, trampling on his children’s train set and rifling through medicine cabinets while delivering classic TV-movie dialogue like, “Your dad doesn’t exist. Where’s the bloody Seconal?”
The theme of Sellers’ essential nonexistence is a fascinating one, but at times the film seems overly anxious to hammer it home, stringing together scene after scene in which we are told, rather than shown, that the actor has no personality outside the roles he plays. “There used to be a me behind the mask,” Rush, as Sellers, tells a journalist in the film. “But I had it surgically removed.” When a fellow passenger on an airplane asks, “Aren’t you Peter Sellers?” Sellers responds, “Not today.” Later, Sellers lunches with his mother while costumed as Dr. Strangelove, never once breaking character. Asked afterward how her son is doing, Peg replies, “I don’t know. I didn’t see him.” By the time Sellers lands his dream role as Chance the gardener, the blank-slate hero of Being There, viewers will be muttering, We get it. You don’t exist. Can we move on?
Aided by elaborate prosthetics and makeup, Geoffrey Rush is a dead ringer not only for Sellers, but for several of Sellers’ onscreen personae (Inspector Clouseau, Dr. Strangelove, Being There’s Chance the gardener). Rush’s virtuosic performance gets at everything about Sellers except his quintessential emptiness (which, to be fair, is a quality so internal it would be difficult to embody). Perhaps this is because Rush is such a busy actor, cramming his scenes with a panoply of tics and mannerisms; Sellers, on the contrary, had a serenely absent quality, as if he were in a different film than everyone else.
The cast for this production reinforces my theory that working for HBO must be an actor’s dream holiday. Stars pop up in even the tiniest roles (though a few, like Stanley Tucci as Stanley Kubrick, appear to be phoning it in). Mackenzie Crook (The Office’s cadaverous Gareth) makes a tantalizingly brief appearance as a toadying car salesman—will somebody cast this guy as Bartleby the Scrivener before he gets too old? As for Charlize Theron, it sometimes seems unfair that she’s such a good actress, when she already gets to be blonde, 5-foot-9, and Valkyrie-gorgeous. It’s like the head cheerleader in high school also being the valedictorian. But Theron deserves all the praise she gets. She’s dynamite as Britt Ekland, bringing a complex arc of emotion—starry-eyed passion, resentment, hopelessness and, finally, rage—to a fairly minor role. Emily Watson, as Sellers’ first wife, Anne, is terrific too, but does she always have to be so forbearing, so self-abnegating, so … Emily Watson?
For the most part, The Life and Death of Peter Sellers is full of brilliant actors, but short on fresh ideas. The messages that comic geniuses often tend to be offscreen assholes, or that fame and riches tend to ruin the personal lives of stars, hardly constitute breaking news. Still, there are reasons to watch besides the performances. The production and costume design are a hoot, evoking by turns the excesses of swinging London and the glitzy sleaze of ‘70s Hollywood. The use of period pop music is also kitschy and fun, with Tom Jones’ “What’s New Pussycat?” blasting over the animated opening credits.
In a series of spooky fantasy sequences, Sellers dons the costumes and makeup of other characters, imagining himself as his wives, his directors, and in one memorable scene, his dead mother. Addressing the camera, he impersonates their voices as they give their opinion of Peter Sellers (or rather, his own narcissist’s-eye-view of what that opinion might be). It’s a great conceptual device that recalls the dream sequence in Being John Malkovich: a nightmare world populated entirely by mirror images of the self. But unfortunately, unlike Malkovich, this film has no larger point to make about identity and personhood. How do Sellers’ multiple selves spring from his barren inner life, and what does that paradox teach us about acting and about life in general? Do the very qualities that make someone a wonderful performer also necessarily make them a washout as a human being? That’s a question that may admit of no final answer, but The Life and Death of Peter Sellers seems unwilling even to ask it.