'Johnny Stecchino': This bus driver's vehicle goes nowhere

January 08, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

"Johnny Stecchino"

Starring Roberto Benigni.

Directed by Robert Benigni.

Released by New Line.

Unrated.

... ** Roberto Benigni, the elfin, rubbery Italian comic actor, has attracted some cult attention in this country for his roles in two of Jim Jarmush's off-center pictures. But in his native country, Benigni enjoys a more straightforward reputation as a ChaRoberto Benigni, the elfin, rubbery Italian comic actor, has .. attracted some cult attention in this country for his roles in two of Jim Jarmush's off-center pictures. But in his native country, Benigni enjoys a more straightforward reputation as a Chaplin-like writer-director-clown. Now a bit of that mainstream product -- "Johnny Stecchino" -- has reached this country, the Charles Theater, specifically, where it will play for three days.

It's a surprisingly placid, bourgeoise production for the Charles' recondite tastes, a tour of aging Hollywood conventions as derived from classic farce: zany mix-ups in identity based on ridiculous resemblances (the same actor, of course), mix-ups in word play, the contrast of ironic and literal sensibilities, lots of babes and, of course, fall-down-go-booms.

The movie takes far too long to get to its major plot point: a full half-hour has fled before the dweebie, benign and terminally horny Roman bus driver Dante (Benigni) is lured to Palermo to take the place of and die for the Sicilian mobster Johnny Stecchino (Benigni).

From this, literally nothing unexpected happens; the only tension in the picture is whether or not director Benigni can come up with new wrinkles in very old cloth for his stars Benigni and Benigni. Alas, he doesn't do it.

As an example of the lameness of the wit, consider this: The bus driver has a small glitch in his personality that requires him to steal bananas. Thus, in Sicily, as various men try to kill him because they think he's Johnny Stecchino, he thinks it's because he stole a banana! I mean, really.

The director understands that his most potent weapon is his own naive bumbling, and for a time Benigni the actor is capable of draining a laugh or two out of the dated material. It must be said that Benigni has a certain appeal: an unclouded face that in its natural state seems wondrously incapable of harboring either malice or cunning, a bone-structure seemingly constructed out of elastic and a froth of every-which-way hair that seems almost angelic. With the right material, he could soar.

But it soon becomes clear that the movie isn't going anywhere a lot of similar farces have gone before, except that it's going more slowly and it telegraphs its moves minutes in advance. Farce, like a fast break, should be fast and elegant; Benigni's is pure slow-down ball.

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