Johnny Stecchino

Roberto Benigni: you either love him, or you hate him. Italy’s top clown, the man has come to carry the torch of physical comedy into this generation, culminating with his worldwide smash, Life is Beautiful, which is either a loving tribute to the power of the human spirit, or a tasteless, tone-deaf attempt at sanitizing the Holocaust, depending on your point of view.

But before he made that one, Benigni made several other Italian hits with his wife and creative partner, Nicoletta Braschi, including this one: Johnny Stecchino, the highest-grossing film in Italy at the time. In classic Benigni form, it’s a Chaplinesque tribute to the silent era of physical comedy, chock-full of ridiculous gags that make you laugh out loud in spite of yourself. It’s silly, it’s funny, it’s exactly what it sets out to be: laugh-out-loud goofy. Which, as you should know from all the terribly unfunny comedies out there, is no easy feat.

Benigni plays Dante, a dopey, hapless bus driver with a down-syndrome laden best friend named Lillo. I’m not sure that gag would fly in today’s environment, but at least Benigni plays it straight- Lillo is simply a good pal who happens to have down syndrome, though he does account for one of the funniest gags in the whole film. Most of the story involves Maria, however- a mysterious woman (Braschi) who, for some reason, seems to fall in love with his simpleton from the moment she almost runs him over with her car. Why that is is one of the many twists you need to discover for yourself, but one thing that makes Johnny Stecchino work is that, despite its seemingly formulaic “classic” comedy setup, it consistently manages to surprise you in its execution. The gags seem obvious in retrospect, but are completely fresh when they hit you- and so you laugh.

Benigni loves running gags, and there are many to be found here, including bananas, gangsters, and cocaine. And even though the whole thing seems to be building towards the inevitable romantic comedy ending, nothing turns out exactly as you would think; lovely stone-faced Maria grounds the film with her presence, a perfect counterpart to the never-ending goofball antics of Benigni. Without her, those antics might have overloaded the entire show, but Benigni the director is wise enough to temper Benigni the actor in this way, making Johnny Stecchino a legitimate comedy treat.

Note- this is the original, 2-hour Italian release. The American version trimmed 20 minutes out of the film, including some of the best (edgier) gags and important dialogue that probably made the film really confusing to American audiences.


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