Depending on how you look at it, this is either a very good or very bad week to be Jesse Eisenberg. He has not one, but two new movies being released into the streaming world today. I’m not sure what the theatrical prospects for either would have been were movie theaters not shut down, but they probably weren’t very strong. Still, for those of us who enjoy Eisenberg in just about everything, it’s nice to be reminded of his range and of the very different types of work he’s drawn to.
The more conventional of the two releases is Resistance, the story of young Jewish actor Marcel Mangel (Eisenberg), who is so self-obsessed with his own burgeoning career circa 1940 that he doesn’t have much interest in the impending invasion by German troops into France during World War II. He’s more focused on his impersonations of Charlie Chaplin in burlesque clubs, working on building scenery for his shows, and occasionally helping in his father’s butcher shop. He even considers it an annoyance when someone asks him to look after and entertain recently orphaned Jewish children while plans are made by a resistance movement to either find them new homes or get them out of the country. But it turns out, he’s pretty good as using his abilities as a mime to keep the kids occupied and their minds off their uncertain futures.
One of the first orphans Marcel helps is young Elsbeth (Bella Ramsey, “Games of Thrones”), and we see a great deal of what the many kids in this film experience through her wise-beyond-her-years eyes. As Marcel gets more involved and those taking care of the children are forced to move to southern France to escape the invaders, he determines that if he’s going to be a part of this, he’s going to dive in head first and become an official part of the French Resistance. He also changes his name to Marcel Marceau—and now you know who this movie is really about.
With not much adjustment, Resistance could have turned into an updated version of Roberto Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful or, god-forbid, Jerry Lewis’ The Day the Clown Cried. Thankfully, writer/director Jonathan Jakubowicz has a true story at his disposal and mostly sticks to the facts in telling the story of the world’s most famous mime. This mime also happened to be a revolutionary who risked his life for children, the French people, and Jews in France, creating something of an underground railroad to the Swiss Alps that helped hundreds of children out of occupied France.
Eisenberg’s performance is quite solid, although his attempts at pantomime are mixed at best; and while it seems unfair to judge his comic timing by today’s standards, the routines his Marceau does aren’t that funny. The film features a few other terrific supporting performances from the likes of Clémence Poésy as fellow Resistance fighter and potential love interest Emma; German actor Matthias Schweighöfer as a young and particularly malicious Klaus Barbie (the highest ranking SS officer in France at the time); and Son of Saul star Géza Röhrig as another Resistance comrade, Georges. There are also interesting and slightly strange cameos from Edgar Ramirez and even Ed Harris as Gen. George S. Patton, who is technically the person telling this story to his troops as part of a motivational speech.
The problem with Resistance is that it tells a truly fascinating story in the least interesting way possible. I’m all for a dramatized work that sticks to the facts and avoids manufactured drama, especially when the actual drama is plenty engaging. But there still has to be some level of human engagement, especially when you have dozens of children as part of the cast and emotions are running high for both the French and Jewish people at the core of the story. By having this story revolve around Marcel Marceau—who made a good living from creating emotions from wordless performances—it seems strange that so little of this movie is engaging as an emotional exercise. I was actually bothered that I wasn’t closer to tears at key moments of Resistance. There’s a fair amount to enjoy here, from the performances to the production design, but as a piece of engaging entertainment, it doesn’t quite achieve victory.
Resistance is now available on most major streaming platforms.