The notion that Peter Sellers was a brilliant chameleon who could disappear into characters largely because he was a sad, empty vessel in his personal life gets pounded home in The Life & Death Of Peter Sellers, a warts-and-all depiction that lingers on the actor and comedian's imperfections. The film races giddily through Sellers' tumultuous life, from his Goon Show beginnings through his British cinematic triumphs and eventual international stardom, documenting his stormy relationships with women along the way. Throughout his career, the Pink Panther star desperately tried to keep up with the times, a characteristic the film conveys by shamelessly aping all manner of generational clichés. If the film is to be believed, Sellers spent much of the '60s impersonating Austin Powers, leering at a day-glo assortment of smashing birds from behind coke-bottle lenses. And that's not even getting into the multiple psychedelic fantasy sequences and battery of delirious montages. The film's strategy seems to be based on the belief that it's impossible to devolve into zany kitsch if you dive headfirst into it from the very beginning.
Pushing Beyond The Sea's film-within-a-film conceit to the level of absurdity, the film pauses regularly so that Geoffrey Rush, as Sellers, can recite long monologues directly into the camera while impersonating other people in his life, a disturbing number of them women. The scenes are meant to convey how Sellers could only really understand people within the context of play-acting, but the net effect is incredibly distracting. The screenwriters have written themselves into a corner, because the only thespian brilliant enough to tackle their impossible lead role is Peter Sellers, and he's a little dead these days. Rush handles at least two-thirds of this acting triathlon with panache, mastering Sellers and his assortment of indelible characters, but he stumbles at playing Sellers impersonating the people in his life. Rush won a Golden Globe for the role, but he was probably rewarded more for the quantity of his acting than its quality (see also: Shine). Heavyweight character actors Stanley Tucci, John Lithgow, Stephen Fry, and Emily Watson are better served by the material—they sink their teeth into the juicy roles of Stanley Kubrick, Blake Edwards, Sellers' loony spiritual advisor, and Sellers' longsuffering first wife, respectively. Then again, they only have to master a single role apiece.
In a behind-the-scenes doc included on the DVD, the filmmakers discuss how Peter Sellers' life was like a Peter Sellers movie. Accordingly, Life & Death ends up feeling a lot like a Peter Sellers movie, but not, unfortunately, one of the better ones.