By Stephanie Zacharek
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Europe's favorite movie comedian, Roberto Benigni, carries the Buster Keaton chromosome and the Jim Carrey chromosome--joined together in bedroom farce. American audiences know him best as Tom Waits's talkative cellmate in Jim Jarmusch's Down By Law, as Johnny Stecchino, or as Inspector Clouseau Jr. in the ill-considered Son of the Pink Panther. But in his purest form--which is to say his homegrown, native Italian form--Benigni is a frantic slapstickian who can lift a laugh-mad audience right out of its seat with a recitation of Chinese multiplication tables, then turn around and beat the nearest sight gag to such a pulp that you start running for the exit. Comic charm and unfettered hysteria don't always make suitable bedfellows, but Benigni doesn't mind pointing his shotgun at them.
In The Monster, written, directed and dominated by the irrepressible Signor B., the lanky, rubber-faced comedian plays a buffoon named Loris who is mistakenly identified as a serial sex killer. Loris is not without faults--he's a horny little con man with a taste for shoplifting--but the only thing he's ever really hurt is his coldhearted landlord's effort to toss him out of his apartment. After misjudging a loopy set of coincidences, however, a half-crazy police chief (Laurent Spielvogel) and a completely crazy psychiatrist (Michel Blanc) decide that Loris is their man--"the Mozart of vice"--and they enlist a pretty policewoman named Jessica (Nicoletta Braschi) to entrap the "monster" with her charms.
At this point, our auteur opens wide the comic floodgates. Tidy little bits involving lighted cigarettes dropped down the front of his trousers and dress mannequins arranged in compromising postures give way to the full, manic Benigni assault--lunatic chases a la Charlie Chaplin; an uproarious dinner party at which the bumbling Loris inadvertently terrorizes the psychiatrist's uptight wife (Dominique Lavanant); a running gag that has Benigni and Braschi duck-walking in the streets; the shambles of Loris's final exam in Chinese. The man's patron saint is Federico Fellini, but his physical exuberance owes just as much to the Three Stooges. There's no such thing as "too much" in Benigni's brand of burlesque, so he never hesitates to stuff a desk drawer full of spaghetti or tangle his characters up with baling wire on a fire escape or have a single-minded shrink pose as a tailor and stick sensors and wires all over our hero in the guise of measuring him up for a new suit.
Everyone from Groucho to Stan Laurel might smile at Benigni's loving homages, while Ace Ventura, Pet Detective, seems to be copping some of his moves. Funny? You bet, especially if you have a taste for Italian ham and don't mind an hour in the decompression chamber after leaving the theater.--Gallo
The Monster. Written and directed by Roberto Benigni. With Roberto Benigni, Nicoletta Braschi, Michel Blanc and Dominique Lavanant.
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