It takes brio, bordering on gall, to tackle a biopic of the nasty, brilliant, hollow man Peter Sellers a fellow who repeatedly denied his existence. ''There used to be a me, but I had it surgically removed,'' he once told austere interviewer Kermit the Frog. Director Stephen Hopkins' nasty, brilliant, and wondrously slippery film is less a portrait of a person than of the personae bursting from him like clock-sprung coils. It's not so much an examination of art as a gleeful plunge into the artifice of moviemaking.
Many biopics feel like mere daisy chains of big events Michael Mann's Ali went flat under the weight of too-familiar Greatness. Writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, whose screenplay is based on Roger Lewis' controversial book (from which the film gets its name), aren't bound by that rubric: To a surprising number of people, the late Sellers has become the Pink Panther Guy. The writers use that freedom to create a whirligig script that swirls fantasy scenes with reality, presenting Sellers' womanizing and drugging as both doleful truth and surreal, rainbow-spangly goofs. The format requires the exquisite Geoffrey Rush to play multiple roles as Sellers often did. In this case, almost a dozen, not including young, plump Sellers; slim, swinging Sellers; and aging, isolated Sellers. Rush has an advantage: He won an Oscar for playing another disturbed genius in Shine; he's lithely supported by a cast that includes fellow Academy darlings Charlize Theron and Emily Watson.
In an early scene, the wannabe movie star ponders whether he should stop striving and just be happy. ''I didn't bring you up to be content,'' bites his mother (Miriam Margolyes), and the filmmakers use this phrase as the jimmy into Sellers. His perfectionism keeps him rapacious, ever packing himself with extra personalities.
Aficionados looking for deep insight into the actor's process might be deflated. Little is said of his Oscar-nominated performance in Being There, aside from the obvious fact that Chauncey Gardiner was as inner-self-less as Sellers aspired to be. But Sellers' showcased work illuminates the man himself: He develops Inspector Clouseau while flying to film 1964's The Pink Panther and we realize his penchant for prankery as he taunts the stewardess with his sticky French accent. Later, he refuses to break out of his Dr. Strangelove character during a preening lunch with his mother, a symptom of his disdain for intimacy.
Sellers' best performances were often about maintaining control: Think Clouseau's clumsy attempts to restore equanimity, Fred Kite's runaway press conference even Dr. Strangelove was almost strangled by his own vindictive hand. In Life & Death, there are scenes in which Rush portrays Sellers' father, first wife, mum, and directors. Through beautiful, disorienting matching shots, we see, say, Watson as Sellers'first wife, Anne, close a door but the person turning to face the camera is Rush, in an identical blond wig and dress, who then speaks for her. This role switching becomes a wily statement on Sellers' dominating, chameleonic nature and it'll leave the viewer dizzied.
Meanwhile, Hopkins' movie nips at all the fakery of filmdom. Sellers and Stanley Kubrick (Stanley Tucci) have an argument in a moving car that's revealed to be a Strangelove set piece; Sellers, in what seems to be a Casino Royale chase scene, turns out to be driving a real car. His relationship with second wife Britt Ekland (Theron, in what should be her last squeal-weep role) is staged with filmic ultrareality from their daffy, sunlit courtship to their fists-and-hair bedroom brawl, with giant self-portraits leering down on them.
Among the nimble cast, Watson is predictably lovely as faithful Anne, and John Lithgow does a jaunty Blake Edwards. Margolyes' Mother Sellers fascinates, encouraging her baby snake to devour all it can, until she too goes down the gullet, cooing. But Rush's achievement is most astounding. His Sellers is playful, miserable, petty, darling, profound. It's a portrait that surely would have incensed the man: For Sellers the perfectionist to be played so flawlessly, what satisfaction. For Sellers the cipher to be so specifically, indelibly detailed, what horror.