When Life Is Beautiful began to conquer The United States it made writer, director, and star Roberto Benigni the most beloved Italian export since pizza. By the time Benigni's nightmare reign of joy and whimsy had reached a merciful end, however, Benigni was the most reviled Italian this side of Mussolini, turning into a Fascist of the heart whose message seemed to be "Lova me and my adorable antics or I crusha you like a bug. Oh no, I use up alla my English making love-threat-promise to the moon!"
Benigni's meteoric rise and precipitous fall serve as harrowing cautionary warnings against the dangers of over-exposure and the hazards of overstaying your welcome. The impish man-child had been a familiar face to art house denizens for decades thanks to his collaborations with Jim Jarmusch (which are uniformly awesome, incidentally) and a huge star in his native Italy and Europe for much longer. Yet despite an ill-fated, American-made attempt at reviving the Pink Panther series with Benigni in the lead role in the early '90s the incorrigible Italian ham was an unknown quantity Stateside until late in the decade.
The historic, unprecedented success of Beautiful changed all that. On paper a heartwarming family comedy-drama set in a concentration camp must have looked like a recipe for disaster. When Jerry Lewis mined similar territory in 1972's notorious The Day The Clown Cried the result was arguably the most notorious unreleased movie of all time, the elusive Holy Grail of failure junkies like myself. Yet when Benigni mugged his way through the bleakest corners of Nazi Germany he became an international icon.
Beautiful opened to ecstatic reviews and unprecedented box-office en route to becoming one of the top-grossing foreign films of all time. Our country's embrace of Benigni reached its apex when he won the Academy Award for Best Actor and Beautiful won Best Foreign Film. In an ecstatic frenzy Benigni leaped on top of chairs rushing to the podium, where he expressed a desire to kidnap, then make love to everybody and other assorted nonsense. It was an Oscar clip-reel moment that simultaneously cemented Benigni's place in American pop culture and hastened his decline.
It was a performance at once adorable and obnoxious but as a backlash quickly gained momentum Benigni began to seem less adorable by the moment. Parodies of Benigni's antics started popping up everywhere, from The Simpsons to Saturday Night Live. People started asking troubling questions. Was Benigni a modern-day Chaplin or a less hirsute Robin Williams? Was Beautiful a timeless testament to the power of imagination and hope or a cynical vanity project? Had we as a culture been suckered by Benigni's grating shtick? Was the emperor of middlebrow whimsy at the very least a tad bit underdressed?
Benigni's decision to follow Beautiful with an adaptation of Pinocchio with himself in the lead role answer all those questions, grimly. What sane 49-year-old casts himself as a little boy? Then again, what sane human being thinks, "You know what would be the perfect setting for a heartwarming family movie? A concentration camp!" One of those bad ideas made Benigni's stateside career. The other took it away.
The casting of a clearly middle-aged man as a pre-pubescent scamp would be enough to sink most movies. But the American release of Pinocchio amplified that miscalculation by replacing Benigni's instantly recognizable voice with that of journeyman American actor and voiceover specialist Breckin Meyer. In a bizarre bit of inter-generational ventriloquism a 49-year old Italian's voice was replaced by that of a twentysomething American pretending to be a five-year old-boy.
It'd be like the makers of Rush Hour deciding that nobody would want to see an action movie starring a guy who sounds like a hysterical 10-year-old girl and having Barry White come in and dub all of Chris Tucker's lines ("Aw, yeah, do you understand the sexy, sexy words coming out of my mouth?") at the last minute. The bizarre incongruity between image and sound in the bizarre post-production construct I like to call "Breckini" (which incidentally is also my favorite cocktail) is equally jarring.
Pinnochio opens with twinkling narration ushering viewers gently into a land where "animals can speak, a child can look like a grown-up (yeah, sure, that's the ticket!) and very often grown-ups can act like children." The narrator neglects to add that in this magical land of Fantastical Vanity Projects the words people speak are often bitterly at odds with the movements of their lips.
Pinnochio opens with an impish log being made into a puppet blessed with the gift of life. Breckini's papa oozes pride as he puts the finishing touches on his beloved wooden brainchild: sagging skin, wrinkles aplenty and a rapidly receding hairline. It's adorable that in this version the kindly puppet-maker chooses to make a puppet roughly his own age. He's less a child surrogate than a potential canasta partner. Breckini comes alive like a puppet Peter Frampton and prances about wearing more make-up than a two-dollar Parisian whore and a smock that looks like it was made out of the floral-print bed sheet I had in third grade.
The endless deluge of animated blockbusters with star-studded voice casts have acclimated audiences to hearing, say, Jeff Bridges' voice coming out of a surfer penguin. But nothing can prepare us for John Cleese's plummy voice emanating from the lips of a creepily humanoid "Cricket" who looks like a mummified Udo Kier with antennae.
Pinocchio quickly turns into a perverse game of "Guess That Voice". Is that Regis Philbin as an evil ringmaster? Why? Why does that rugged Italian farmer sound just like Jim Belushi? Who thought it was a good idea to cast Queen Latifah as a dove? Even more distractingly the animal characters here are played by humans with vaguely animalistic characteristics, a compromise sure to please no one.
Despite stern warnings from Cleese, Breckini soon develops a nose for trouble. Instead of going to school he heads to a puppet theater where he's nearly devoured by a sentimental giant, who ultimately takes pity on him and gives him five gold coins. The coins quickly find their way into the pockets of The Cat and The Fox, scoundrels who don black executioner hoods redolent of both Ku Klux Klan robes and the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib before stringing Breckini up on a tree branch and leaving him to die in front of an impossibly huge and luminous moon. Alas, the Blue Fairy (played by Nicoletta Braschi, Benigni's real-life wife, and voiced by Glenn Close) takes pity on the poor, misguided puppet and saves him from certain death.
This establishes a pattern from which the film seldom deviates: Breckini must choose between good and bad. He invariably chooses bad, suffers disproportionately, and faces imminent destruction only to be bailed out at the last minute by the Blue Fairy, the film's trusty, oft-employed Deus Ex Machina.
If the image of Breckini dangling from a tree isn't enough to traumatize tykes just a few minutes later a group of rabbit pallbearers show up at Breckini's bedside with a coffin. The rabbit pallbearers are supremely peeved when Breckini makes a miraculous recovery.
Breckini eventually ends up behind bars with a fellow juvenile delinquent (voiced by Topher Grace) who confides in hushed tones, "I've got something to show you." If this were a seventies porn film the sleazy wah wah guitar would kick in hardcore at this point. Instead Grace's bad apple whips out a sweet, sweet, candy phallus of a lollipop in Breckini's face and regales him with the story of how he purloined 29 lollipops from a candy store only to have a cop bust him. "I was just about to lick the first one" Grace shares conspiratorially, "and then I heard a policeman call out to me 'Put that tongue back, robber. And hand back those 28 lollipops you have in your pocket.'" Now if Breckini's cellmate were truly naughty he'd have winked suggestively and quipped that there weren't 28 lollipops in his pocket at all: he was just happy to see him.
Oozing envy, Breckini pleads, "Will you give me one little lick? Just one?" If I had just a nickel for every time I've uttered those exact same words down at The Ramrod I'd be a wealthy man. The rampant homoeroticism continues as Grace willingly acquiesces. ""You lick here, me there. You lick first," he demands eagerly. They then take turns double-teaming the lollipop with long, passionate, open-mouthed, obscenely sensual licks. Words cannot convey how deliciously, obliviously homoerotic the entire lollipop sequence feels.
After being released from jail Breckini encounters a gravestone suggesting The Blue Fairy died from Pinnochio-related causes. Distraught, he pleads, "How do you become dead? I wanna be dead too!" Other than homoeroticism and miscalculation Benigni's Pinnochio is distinguished by a perverse, consistent morbidity in the form of rabbit pallbearers, hangings and the ever-present threat of death.
Breckini eventually follows Grace to Fun Foreverland, a paradise where suspiciously mature-looking "boys" frolic, play, wrestle and prance about in a girl-free environment. Honestly, Fun Foreverland is just some poppers and a strobe light away from being Studio 54 on Judy Garland Appreciation night.
Still more pain and humiliation await Breckini however. He's transformed into a donkey, made to work in a sleazy circus, subjected to the vocal stylings of Regis Philbin, and tossed into the ocean to await a watery grave. Yet the Blue Fairy bails Breckini out of every bind before making him a real boy.
In the transcendent Disney version, Pinocchio emerges as a singularly powerful coming-of-age allegory about forsaking the pleasures of perpetual adolescence and embracing adult responsibility. Yet Benigni's entire career is predicated on remaining a child forever. Obviously if Benigni had listened to his sober inner adult he'd never have attempted a project this insanely ambitious or ambitiously insane.
Re-watching Pinocchio I found myself admiring its lunatic conviction, its singular, unsupportable belief that audiences would somehow be willing to overlook the incongruity of a 49-year-old Pinocchio and surrender their defenses at the altar of childhood innocence. Pinocchio is exactly the sort of weirdly compelling, utterly singular personal projects I want to pay homage to with this project even if I wouldn't recommend it to anyone but the morbidly curious.
Pinocchio was originally envisioned as a collaboration between Benigni and Federico Fellini but I doubt even Fellini could have redeemed a project this fundamentally flawed, though he might have pushed the project's innate weirdness to dizzyingly surreal levels. I suspect that the Italian version is infinitely preferable to its American bastardization and while I planned to watch both before writing this entry I was sent two copies of the dubbed version and there are limits even to my pop-culture masochism. Unlike Benigni I like to think I know when I'm licked.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Fiasco