Thursday, January 26, 2006

Criticizing the Critics and More


Pinocchio, Starring Roberto Benigni, Nicoletta Braschi, Carlo Giuffre, Written and Directed by Roberto Benigni, Miramax Home Entertainment, 2002


Critics are assholes.

Let’s get that out of the way first things first. Critics are assholes. It’s almost part of the job description. What more can you say about a group of people with the gall to self-proclaim themselves experts in a field, generally with little or no training, who act as though their judgments and opinions are important enough to share not just with family and friends, but a wider audience? Blowhards, pundits, critics, all assholes of the first order.

Now, there are, of course, levels of assholishness and there is an asshole hierarchy corresponding to your level of media exposure. Little assholes like me, nobodies, look up to and aspire to the assholes working at The New York Times or Entertainment Weekly (in the latter case, aspire, not admire). With this hierarchy in place, shit rolls downhill. What the top assholes say in their reviews, a lot of lesser assholes feel obligated to parrot.

Which brings us to the case of Roberto Benigni’s follow-up to his moving, successful, award-winning film Life Is Beautiful, the critically savaged Pinocchio. Were one to scan this list of trashings, you would notice a few things that stand out in many of the critics’ comments. Benigni is too old to play a little boy. True, and might be relevant if mentioned in a film supposing to be realistic. His five o’clock shadow is distracting. A similarly ridiculous view championed by Elvis Mitchell at The New York Times, one of their rotating gravestone rubbings left in the wake of the divine Janet Maslin’s departure. Benigni’s costume is ridiculous. A view both nearly pointless and so bereft of cultural insight as to be a joke itself.

Finally, the film is written off as an excess of hubris so badly made as to be considered a fitting punishment for ne’er do wells. Be good or we’ll make you watch Pinocchio. It's probably a little bit coincidental and a lot not coincidental at all that when The Times and The Post and Entertainment Weekly say this first, a number of smaller outlets will make similar "criticisms."

Well, let’s get a few things out of the way from the get-go. The one things critics can’t abide publicly, though they thirst for it privately, is a follow-up to a success that falls short of that grand triumph. Pinocchio is, and in some respects wisely, not an attempt to even try for the glories of Life Is Beautiful. That it could never have bested the film let’s take as a given; Benigni didn’t even try to come close. Instead, he decided to make something utterly different. This indifference to what critics are hoping for infuriates them like nobody’s business.

But, I hear you wondering, is Pinocchio a good film? Short answer, it might and it might not be to your tastes. Benigni is one of those actors people either find darling or dreadful, depending on their tolerance for amusing whimsy. I happen to have a rather high tolerance for it and was a fan of his first film released in America, Johnny Stecchino, as well as his subsequent appearance in Jarmusch’s Down By Law. Life Is Beautiful made me cry so hard I developed a splitting headache. That happened at the first viewing. And the second.

The major problems with Benigni’s film stem not from it itself, but from the transition from Italian film to foreign film in America. What do you do when you have a film that was a success in Italy, but it’s a kids’ movie and in Italian? American kids won’t go see a subtitled film, let’s face it. Dubbing is your only solution. They even dub anime and children are far more likely to go see that.

Someone on IMDB wrote that American critics were screened the Italian version of the film with English subtitles. If that was true, someone forgot to tell The Times to get a reporter there in time. Mitchell’s review is of the dubbed English version. Wisely (and probably at Benigni’s urging) the DVD release of this film includes both versions of the movie.

I have watched them both, I have made comparisons. I can fully understand much of why the English dubbed version was panned by critics. Part of Benigni’s appeal is his voice, his high infectious glee. It bubbles up out of him and is such an energetic part that denuded of it, he can be seen as merely manic rather than spirited. For a forty million euro budget, you’d think that the American producers would be willing to shell a little on some quality talent for the dubbing, but you’d be wrong.

Instead of finding a comparable actor, Miramax chose the utterly talentless, utterly abhorrent, clearly awful Breckin Meyer, star of such fare as Garfield and the in post-production Garfield 2, not to mention Herby: Fully Loaded, Rat Race, and Josie and the Pussycats. What in god’s name can Harvey Weinstein have been high on when he greenlighted that dereliction of duty? Glenn Close cashes in a good paycheck for the five minutes total dialogue spoken by the Blue Fairy, a part played by Nicoletta Braschi, Benigni’s wife and constant on-screen partner, but it’s barely enough of a part to critique.

Standouts are the wonderful Hercule Poirot regular David Suchet as Gepetto; TV’s Topher Grace in a small part where the voice actually seemed to match the physique of the character in question; and oddly enough Kevin James, currently seen in one of the outrageously numerous TV sitcoms featuring a chubby idiot husband married to a slinky fox of a wife. In a short documentary about the dubbing, he was the only person who seemed specifically concerned that his lines kinda-sorta try to match the lips of the actor for whom he’s reading.

Rounding out the cast is John Cleese, just about the only decent voice in the bunch, but still unable to liven his part as The Talking Cricket; Eric Idle, desperate for any kind of work whatsoever in his pre-Spamalot days; and Cheech Marin, in the same boat as Idle, without the success. Finally the man I firmly believe is the Third Antichrist predicted by Nostradamus, Regis Philbin, in a part so small I can’t understand why they just didn’t hire any single person to do it, rather than encourage that no-talent dingaling. And just for spite, the studio tossed a eensy-weensy part to Jim Belushi, a man so ungraced with anything resembling talent or skill that he lives in the constant shadow of everyone’s disappointment it was his brother who OD’d and not him.

This extra strength cast of horrible to middling takes a film that was pleasurable, though not memorable, and sears it into your memory like a circumcision done to an adult. If Benigni were to sever his connection to Miramax after this, I’d never hold it against him. Not one of the Italian actors in the film is a bum choice, everyone approaches the film with brio and relish. Especially fun is Kim Rossi Stuart as Lucignolo, the “boy” arrested for stealing lollipops in Saptrap who becomes Pinocchio’s best friend.

The Italian version is infinitely better than this even with its flaws. It is a gorgeous film to look at with beautiful sets by Diego Maria Giorgetti and Danilo Donati, the last film for the latter and to whom Pinocchio is dedicated. The subtle make up creations for the Cat and Fox who try to rob Pinocchio are outstanding; one moment they are clearly human, the next the volpine profile reveals the character all too clearly. The scenes where Pinocchio and all the other lazy, irresponsible boys become jackasses is a entertaining little joy, the puppet and Lucignolo clearly enjoying themselves in Playland. Throughout the film Benigni’s little breadcrumb hat is an absurd crown for his little crazy head and his white with red print design costume is a direct and obvious nod to the long history of Italian opera clowns.

Truer to the nineteenth century children’s book by Carlo Collodi than to the stickily gentle Disney version far more familiar to Americans, Benigni’s Pinocchio is an amusing film about a naughty, naughty puppet who eventually learns to be good. The film’s history is almost a reversal of that. Pinocchio starts with the magical image and sound of the Blue Fairy’s coach being drawn by hundreds of moon white mice, their harnesses tintinnabulating like a thousand tiny, fragile bells. It made me gasp at the wonder of it all; the film closes with the same bewitching carriage as it drives off into the Italian early morning. In the American dubbed version, this wonder is marred by a pointless, stupid voice-over introduction, distracting and drowning out the mousey jingle, and that is this dual film’s coda: a little spot of magical whimsy stepped on by an oaf’s boot.

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