Picks and Pans Review: The Life and Death of Peter Sellers

updated 12/13/2004 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/13/2004 AT 01:00 AM EST


HBO (Sun., Dec. 5, 9 p.m. ET)

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When I see a movie about a temperamental, self-destructive performer, I often wonder why we need to care about the subject's personal problems. Can't we let his work speak for itself?

But I never felt that way about this extraordinary portrait of the star of Dr. Strangelove and The Pink Panther because the filmmakers sold me on the idea that Peter Sellers's life and art influenced each other on the most fundamental level. "I don't really have any personality of my own," the master mimic (portrayed by Geoffrey Rush) tells an interviewer. The empty slate that's a gift for the actor is a curse for the man. In a brilliant conceit, director Stephen Hopkins frames the story as though the protagonist were presenting a stylized film autobiography. When he feels the need to alter reality, Sellers displays his knack for assuming multiple roles and transforms himself into his mother, his wife or one of his frustrated directors. It is a tour de force by Rush that not only astonishes the viewer but illuminates Sellers's chameleonic nature.

With Rush on the scene, a supporting cast is almost redundant, but this one is loaded with talent: Emily Watson as Sellers's first wife, Anne, who loses patience with his childish pouts and tantrums; Charlize Theron as second wife Britt Ekland, the blonde bombshell he adores and then degrades; Miriam Margolyes as the smothering mother who lives vicariously through his success; Stanley Tucci as crafty Strangelove director Stanley Kubrick; and John Lithgow as Blake Edwards, the director who maintains a volatile partnership with Sellers through one Panther sequel after another.

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