1991, R, 102 min. Directed by Roberto Benigni. Starring Roberto Benigni, Nicoletta Braschi.
REVIEWED By Pamela Bruce, Fri., Jan. 15, 1993
Perhaps best known for his quirky comic roles in Jim Jarmusch's Down By Law and Night on Earth, Benigni wears the director/writer/actor hats this time around in an Italian comedy that is too predictably amusing and sweet for its own good. Benigni acts in dual roles: one, as Dante, a cute, naive, Barney Fife-meets-a-pre-Mia-Woody Allen archetype who drives a school bus for retarded students, and who -- for some vague sense of character motivation -- delights in stealing bananas and defrauding the government through bogus disability claims. The other as an anally-retentive, oedipally-driven Mafioso known as Johnny Stecchino (“Toothpick”) who is forced to live in hiding as a marked man due to cooperating with the police authorities. In a plot that is as old as the hills in the screwball comedy genre, the innocent bus driver Dante becomes entangled in a case of mistaken identity when the beautiful wife (Braschi) of Johnny Stecchino lures him to her villa in Palermo, Sicily with promising prospects of passion to liven up his otherwise virginal existence. However, the wife has an ulterior motive in mind: to have the unsuspecting Dante bumped off by local hit men thinking him to be Johnny Stecchino, while she and the real McCoy take off for the good life in Buenos Aires. Benigni's film has its moments, but for the most part, it seems to rely heavily on generic comedy conventions that really don't put a new face on a standard formula, thus the viewer can see the gags and the punch lines coming around every corner of the narrative. Benigni also wears out his running gags with bananas (to the point of overripeness) and with a bag of cocaine -- which seems too dated to be a topic of social satire by American audiences who have been jaded through a decade's worth of “Just Say No.” One also gets the impression that Benigni perhaps spread himself too thin in taking on so many tasks in the production of his work, for the film seems to try so hard at being a continuous laugh riot that there is a sense of underdevelopment in characterizations and motivational aspects. Johnny Stecchino is cute, but bland and forgettable.