A relatively harmless but by no means angelic social misfit gets mistaken for a serial killer in “The Monster,” the first actor-director outing by leading Italian comedy star Roberto Benigni since his 1991 domestic record-breaker, “Johnny Stecchino.” Though the irreverent Tuscan rib-tickler’s work behind the cameras fails to match the heights of his onscreen presence, the laughs come thick and fast, guaranteeing colossal biz at home, and at least a modest assault on offshore markets.
After the less-than-rapturous reception given his Hollywood excursion in Blake Edwards'”Son of the Pink Panther,” here Benigni ironically echoes Edwards’ work with Peter Sellers, showcasing his singular gifts as both physical comedian and crazed babbler.
Benigni plays Loris, a shifty, sexually overwound petty shyster who’s not the least bit interested in getting along with his fellow residents in a gargantuan apartment block. At a party, he gets a tip-off about an easy conquest, but approaches the wrong woman.
Attempting to apologize later for his groping hands, he makes matters worse with an out-of-control chainsaw. The terrified victim’s police report convinces head cop Frustalupi (Laurent Spielvogel) that Loris is “the Mozart of vice,” the violent sex killer he’s spent 12 years stalking.
Hoping to surprise him in the act, Frustalupi and police shrink Taccone (Michel Blanc) tail Loris. The cleverly orchestrated, misconstrued circumstances they catch on film seemingly tag him as a depraved sex fiend who even strangles cats. Eager to pounce, the cops send in policewoman Jessica (Nicoletta Braschi) as bait.
Braschi (Benigni’s real-life wife) makes a tasty, extremely amusing foil as she nervously flaunts her charms, falling in love in the process.
Though the pic’s comic concerns are far from new, Benigni’s verve and inventiveness make them fresh, often skating tantalizingly along the edge of offensiveness.
Standout scenes are numerous, from Loris’ attempts to improve his career prospects by learning Chinese, through him setting up a decoy in the local supermarket to facilitate shoplifting, to his ruses to discourage buyers of the apartment he’s renting. Benigni also tosses in a witty dig at the Italian political circus via an overblown condominium meeting.
On the down side, the film suffers from an uneven rhythm. (Prints being touted for international sale are reportedly shorn of 10 minutes, which could eliminate lulls.) Benigni’s direction is rather flat overall, especially in the more frenetic final reels where cops begin to close in on Loris. However, given that the performing energy is kept at full steam, this presents no major problem.
Alongside the delightful leading duo, Gallic actor-director Blanc (“Dead Tired”) gels seamlessly as the barely sane medic, especially in a funny scene where Loris has the doc and his jittery wife (Dominique Lavanant) over to dinner.
Lavanant and Jean-Claude Brialy as the building’s distraught administrator also earn their share of laughs. As a distinguished gent unfazed by Loris and Jessica’s increasingly eccentric behavior, Massimo Girotti adds a welcome running joke.
Despite some of the names on hand, the film’s tech slate is unremarkable, aside from Evan Lurie’s jaunty score. Biggest disappointment is Carlo Di Palma’s lensing, which is frequently less than sharp and does little to alleviate the blandness of the suburban setting.