Roberto, Is That You?

Maybe there really is a sucker born every minute. We’ll know soon enough when we see how the public responds—or fails to respond—to the ad in today’s New York Times (12/26/02) for the "Exclusive" one-week engagement at Manhattan’s Angelika Film Center of "Pinocchio," the Miramax bomb starring shameless 51-year-old mugger Roberto Benigni as the lovable boy puppet whose nose grows every time he tells a lie.

"Don’t Miss Academy Award Winner Roberto Benigni’s Original Director’s Cut! --Italian Language Version--," trumpets the ad. The implication is that U.S. audiences were denied the purity and eloquence of Benigni’s Italian lilt because of some accident beyond the actor’s--and Harvey Weinstein’s--control. The fact is that a frantic last-minute dubbing was done shortly before the movie’s U.S. release, and those of us who caught "Pinocchio" on opening day (there were no advance screenings for critics) had the pleasure of hearing 29-year-old Breckin Meyer’s voice bubble out of Benigni’s big mouth.

And, yes, it’s true--the Italian comic did win an Oscar for his performance as a plucky victim of the Holocaust in "Life Is Beautiful," a prize which William Goldman, writing in Variety, called "the scummiest award in the Academy’s history." At any rate, here is a reminder of what American reviewers had to say about "Pinocchio." (At least one critic—Rex Reed—managed to catch the un-dubbed version, but it didn’t seem to make much difference.)

"...a movie so bad that it quickly enters the pantheon of wreckage that includes 'Battlefield Earth' and 'Showgirls.' The heavy sighs of the few other people in the theater, who apparently had been paroled into the custody of the multiplex, were easily heard over the long, dead silences between Pinocchio-Benigni's chattering...It's hard to tell what's sadder, Geppetto's belief that Pinocchio is a child puppet or Mr. Benigni's need to play one...It's an oddity that will be avoided by millions of people, this new 'Pinocchio.' Osama bin Laden could attend a showing in Times Square and be confident of remaining hidden." --Elvis Mitchell, The New York Times

"Roberto Benigni's 'Pinocchio' is such a ghastly misfire, such a charmless and witless waste of film, you can easily understand why Miramax refused to advance-screen it for critics...the movie is an egregious fiasco, appearing at once laughably tatty and ludicrously overproduced as it desperately encompasses a cluttered jumble of visual and narrative influences...The glaringly maladroit English dubbing, which makes the unfortunate cast of this Italian-produced film appear even sillier, is the final nail in the coffin. Chalk it up as the worst kind of hubristic folly...Whenever Benigni's Pinocchio expresses his longing to be 'a real little boy,' he comes off as delusional, if not totally deranged." --Joe Leydon, San Francisco Examiner

"... a noisy, exasperating take on the children's classic starring Roberto Benigni, a hyperkinetic writer-director-player of unparalleled mannered hysterics who is as irritating as a human deer tick...Lethal for kids and an unspeakable insult to adults, this unreleasable fiasco is a torture for all." -- Rex Reed, The New York Observer

"So misguided as to be utterly mystifying, this shameless vanity project is almost surreal enough to be entertaining. Almost...Benigni, who never met a camera he didn't sloppily embrace, cast himself in the lead...What's worse, the American edition is dubbed, rather than subtitled. So we're left with a 52-year-old man with the voice of 28-year-old Breckin Meyer playing a 10-year-old boy made of wood...Though 'Pinocchio' is said to be the most expensive Italian movie ever made, it looks like the cheapest, thanks to the washed-out settings, lazy script and haphazard direction." --Elizabeth Weitzman, The New York Daily News

"Benigni only superficially comprehends Pinocchio's heartbreaking desire for flesh-and-bone, and as such there's very little difference between the Pinocchio that chases after wild geese and smashes into garbage cans and the more mannered Pinocchio that gets to go to school by film's end. It's like watching an ass put on a blue suit--there's still an ass underneath." --Ed Gonzalez, Slant

"The puppet may finally come to life, but the movie never does...we did expect director/co-writer/star Benigni ('Life Is Beautiful') to deliver a film that's much livelier and more amusing than this listless, ill-conceived fiasco...It is very hard to accept as a child a man of 50 who does nothing to hide his receding hairline or his height...The willing suspension of disbelief is a wonderful thing. And yet you can not simply declare that you are a puppet child and expect the world to go along with you...Instead of hiding 'Pinocchio' from critics, Miramax should have hidden it from everyone." --Jay Boyar, Orlando Sentinel