Then Disney released Life is Beautiful stateside. It was a big hit, and it won three Oscars -- for good reason too. Life is Beautiful is a wonderful movie, in our opinion one of the best released in 1998.
That triggered in us a need to see some more of Benigni's work, leading us to The Monster. Benigni writes, directs, and stars in this dark comedy. If people were skeptical that comedy about the Holocaust could be done tastefully, they would have even more reason to fear that The Monster, about a regular schmoe mistaken for a sexually perverted serial killer, would be less than totally in good taste. They would be right.
Enter Loris (Benigni). Loris has some sort of menial job that involves mannequins, but he gets by mostly through low-level grifting. His landlord wants to rent his apartment to someone who would pay better, but Loris uses deception to scare away any prospective renters. In another scene we see how Loris shoplifts from a department store. He secrets security tagged items in to the pockets, purses and baby carriages of every other shopper in the store, so that by the time he gets to the checkout, his trench coat laden with hidden goods, the cashiers don't trust the security alarms.
Unfortunately for Loris, he accidentally sexually assaults a woman at a party. Later that same night, Loris accidentally chases that same woman around a parking garage with a chainsaw. The police, on the strength of the woman's testimony, decide Loris is the Monster, though they choose not to arrest him because they want to catch him red-handed. In real life, this would never happen. After all, the Monster takes body parts, so how hard would it be find evidence where he lives? Still, The Monster is more logical in this respect than the recent Bone Collector, which was supposed to be a serious film.
The plan is to put an undercover policewoman in close proximity to Loris, in the hope that he will do something incriminating. The unlucky woman chosen to be the bait is Jessica (Nicoletta Braschi, who also played Benigni's love interest in Life is Beautiful), who gets the job mainly because she falls asleep during the briefing, and all the other police women left in disgust after seeing Loris' antics.
Jessica finds it easy to insinuate herself into Loris' life, because he wants to sublet his apartment to someone who won't mind avoiding the building's landlord. But when Loris makes no menacing moves towards her, her superiors encourage her to be more suggestive around him. This leads to a hilarious (if tasteless) scene where Jessica does everything she can to turn to Loris on, including changing her clothes in front of Loris, constantly sitting across from Loris with her legs spread, coming up with excuses for Loris to touch her breasts, and so forth, all the time rambling on about what she would like to plant in a garden or some story her great aunt once told her. It's that much more amusing because Nicoletta Braschi is obviously doing her impersonation of Benigni himself, and it's neat to see him be on the receiving end of this kind of clowning.
The bottom line is that this film is very funny. Benigni is a talented and funny performer, and his chemistry with Nicoletta Braschi is excellent. That's not surprising, because they are husband and wife in real life, a fact that gives all of us nerds great hopes that we will someday marry a woman who looks like a fashion model. It's tough not to watch Benigni and just laugh, no matter what he does.
The only thing that concerned us about The Monster is that some of the movie's comic bits aren't well integrated into the overall plot. At one point Jessica's superior, a psychologist, wants to give Loris a physical exam, complete with blood samples, and Jessica arranges for him to do so -- during a dinner party. Funny, but it stops the plot dead for fifteen minutes. There is also a recurring sub-plot about the fact that Loris is taking Chinese language courses -- a sub-plot that exists only to supply a body when one is needed for the climax. Oh, and did we miss the explanation for why Loris has a full sized replica of Bashful from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves in his closet?
The Monster might be a fun movie to do as a double feature with a more serious serial killer movie, like Kiss the Girls or Copycat. Don't try it as a double feature with Life is Beautiful, however. While Life is Beautiful was an truly uplifting film, The Monster is a movie where some of the biggest laughs come when a woman gets a man's head between her legs.
Review date: 12/22/99
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