Of all the things you might do with your kids on Christmas Day, seeing Roberto Benigni's Pinocchio should not be one of them.
Of course, I saw Pinocchio in Italian with subtitles. The version going out this week has been dubbed into English with the voices of celebrities, including Breckin Meyer as the wooden puppet, Glenn Close as the Good Fairy and Queen Latifah as the narrator. The ad in Sunday's Times made it seem like all these actors (there are maybe a dozen voices) are in the movie. They aren't. It's all Italian actors who read their lines in their native language.
But the voice of God could not help this terribly misguided production.
Benigni, who is now 50 years old, has completely miscalculated and miscast himself as the little boy puppet who yearns to be a real boy. Dressed in Harlequin outfits that look like they might be Balenciaga pantsuits for mature women, Benigni — topped off with a pointed cap — looks and sounds ridiculous in the role.
But nothing is worse than his dialogue with the other characters, most especially 32-year-old Italian heartthrob actor Kim Rossi Stuart, who plays "real boy" Lucignolo. Their discussions — in particular a long and unfortunate one that involves licking each other's lollipops while in prison — are headed for worst movie moments of all time. There is also the matter of Pinocchio's instantly growing nose, which is a flesh-colored apparatus that is fairly phallic and altogether unappetizing. There's a reason that no one has tried to improve upon the animated version: in live action, the story becomes camp and uncomfortable, more of a parody than a parable.
You have to think that Benigni, who is quite bright and has a very firm knowledge of the English language despite his loud protestations, is kidding about these scenes. He must be playing them as farce, you think. But no — his Pinocchio seems a straightforward exercise.
If there are any "winks" to the audience it has be the scene in which Pinocchio is discovered from a stage by a theatre troupe. He immediately walks on the tops of chairs and over the audience to join them. This is some kind of takeoff of Benigni's acceptance of his 1999 Oscar for Best Actor and Best Foreign Film (each for Life is Beautiful ).
There's been a suggestion that Benigni actually did this at the awards ceremony knowing he as going to play it that way later in Pinocchio, but this is too absurd. What really comes across is that Benigni believed all his press from the Life is Beautiful release and now sees no irony in his actions. What a shame! Life is Beautiful remains a masterful piece of film, and Benigni's work in it cannot be besmirched by this accident.
But Pinocchio is rather the Italian equivalent of pulling a Kevin Costner. That actor also lost focus after his many awards and plaudits for Dances with Wolves. He never got his groove back. I am hopeful this is not Benigni's fate, and that some kind of reality and self-consciousness will rule his next endeavor.
I am sad to say I read yesterday's story in the New York Times about Shmuley Boteach and got a little ill.
Samuel Freedman, a good reporter, writer and author of interesting books, evidently was sold a bill of goods on Boteach. His report on Shmuley's WWRL radio show with Peter Noel made it sound like Michael Jackson's onetime rabbi was on the up and up.
But readers of this column know otherwise. Back on May 23, 2001, we revealed the truth about the "Kosher Sex" rabbi who started a bogus charity with Jackson.
To this day there has no been no accounting for the money Boteach and Jackson raised for their Time for Kids/Heal the World Foundation. Indeed, the event they held on Feb. 14, 2001, at Carnegie Hall — a symposium on children — has never turned up in tax returns.
London newspapers reported that Boteach was ousted from the L'Chaim Society of Oxford University for mismanagement of funds. (He allegedly used money from the charity to maintain a lavish home. Boteach insisted it was his right to do so.) He was also reportedly banned from having a pulpit in the U.K., although during our conversation last year he denied that.
The New York Times also didn't bother to look into the infamous L'Chaim Society, Boteach's New York charity.
The most recent tax return available, which covers all of 2000, states that the New York edition of L'Chaim Society took in $203,185 in donations but paid out $240,164 "for administration." There are no funds listed for "Program Services."
In May 2001, this column discovered quite a lot about the so-called Oxford L'Chaim Society of New York, which has nothing whatsoever to do with Oxford University in Great Britain.
I wrote: "In 1999, the British government criticized (Boteach's) L'Chaim Society of Oxford, London and Cambridge — an organization that was supposed to support and promote Jewish thinking and life on the Oxford campus — when they discovered that Shmuley (his name is Shmuel but he loves the nickname) had been dipping into the funds.
In an e-mail to the Oxford Union, Sonia Tugwell of the Charity Commission wrote on January 8, 2001: "In August 1999, the Charity Commission opened an inquiry under section 8 of the Charities Act 1993 into the L'Chaim Independent Charitable Trust as a result of concerns that the charity's funds were being misapplied.
"The inquiry established that a number of apparent inappropriate payments were regularly being made by the founder of the charity, Rabbi Boteach and his wife. Fundraising costs and administrative expenses were high in relation to relatively low charitable expenditure.
"As a result of the inquiry, in March last year, the trustees of the charity, after taking appropriate legal advice, reached an agreement with the Boteaches. The result of this was that a sum was paid by them to the charity. The trustees of the charity decided to wind up the charity and the London and Oxford offices were closed last year with our approval. It was agreed that the assets of the Cambridge Society would be transferred to another trust. If there are any funds remaining after outstanding liabilities have been paid, these will be given to other charitable causes similar to those supported by the L'Chaim Independent Charitable Trust."
An article dated June 1, 1998, in the London Daily Telegraph clearly states: "Ah Shmuley. The shame, the disgrace. (He's been) publicly reproached by Elkin Levy, president of the United Synagogues; forced to resign from the synagogue in Willesden where he preaches, accused of conduct unbecoming, bringing the rabbinate into disrepute." The resignation was apparently in response to the publication of Boteach's controversial book, "Kosher Sex," which has been a bestseller and was excerpted in Playbo y.
"It seems funny to me," said a source at the Oxford Union, "that the headquarters for the L'Chaim Society of Oxford is in New York."
Frustrated by the lack of information from Boteach's office, I subsequently wrote another story on Feb. 18, 2002, stating that Boteach's tax-free foundation in the United States is alled Oxford L'Chaim Society, implying a tie to the prestigious British university.
I also wrote that the L'Chaim Society's 1999 public tax filing shows that the charity took in $300,000. Of that amount, $160,000 went to "management" and $122,000 was sent as a lump-sum donation to the L'Chaim Society of Cambridge, the other top British university.
But, of course, representatives of the Cambridge Society swore to me last year that they hadn't heard from Boteach in a long time. Certainly they didn't mention a huge donation, and neither did Boteach.
Even so, more than half the money collected by Boteach in 1999 went to salaries. Less than half was donated to charity. Just in case you were wondering.
The word over the weekend from Europe is that the much-admired Sir Rupert Perry, head of EMI Records Group UK and Ireland and a worldwide vice president at the music company for a long, long time, is out. Gone. Probably replaced by a robot.
EMI has been under siege all year, changing department heads and chief execs as fear has gripped the company internationally. A proposed merger with Warner Music Group failed, and the EMI Group has had few hits. Mostly it lives off Capitol Records' catalog of Beatles, Beach Boys and Frank Sinatra records and hope for a hit. Last year they paid Mariah Carey $49 million to leave subsidiary Virgin. That label is also heavily invested in the Rolling Stones.
The company's surprise hit is Norah Jones, on little subsidiary Blue Note, a label run by humans and not droids. If Perry is indeed ousted, it's a sure sign that the Warner merger is back on and that more heads are about to roll. Watch this one as it unfolds.
Just a reminder that Steven Spielberg's breezy and deceptively froth Catch Me If You Can opens on Christmas Day. Leonardo DiCaprio gives his best performance yet as Frank Abagnale Jr., the con man (or con teen, really) who passes himself off as a Pan Am pilot at age 18 and is so good that he even gets a hooker to pay him for sex.
But Catch Me's real gem is Christopher Walken, who plays Abagnale Sr. Walken has gotten a funny rep over the years as a scary dude who looks nuts and plays nuttier. He has kind of a weird sense of humor that doesn't always translate on film. On stage, however, he is usually mesmerizing.
As Abagnale's father, Walken is poignant and endearing. At the same time that he lays the groundwork for his son's demise, he is also a frustrating presence for him. Passed over by the Golden Globes, I guarantee Walken will be remembered by the Screen Actors Guild and possibly even the Academy of Motion Pictures for this role. If so, it will be his first Oscar nomination since 1978's The Deer Hunter.