As a filmmaker, Roberto Benigni is the polar opposite of his friend and one-time collaborator Jim Jarmusch, which helps explain why they made such a terrific team. In Night On Earth, Coffee And Cigarettes, and Down By Law, Jarmusch's deadpan minimalism and sardonic irony smartly undercut the bathos and silent-movie mugging endemic to Benigni's increasingly tired shtick. Jarmusch further plays to Benigni's strengths by pitting his hyper energy against stone-faced comic foils like Steven Wright and John Lurie. Too bad Jarmusch isn't on hand to rein in Benigni in The Tiger And The Snow, a bizarre 2005 vanity project that might as well be named Life Is Beautiful Too: The Iraqening. Imagine writer-director-star Benigni delivering a 110-minute version of his infamous Oscar acceptance speech while running frantically around Italy and Iraq, and you have a fair approximation of the film's epic folly.
In a performance and film characterized by an utter lack of shame or restraint, Benigni devours the scenery as a beloved poet and educator who's part puckish man-sprite, part selfless Christ-like martyr. When dream girl Nicoletta Braschi is seriously injured in Iraq, Benigni travels to Baghdad to save her through a dogged combination of magical thinking and blind devotion.
The Tiger And The Snow inhabits the same tricky intersection of comedy and tragedy as Life Is Beautiful, but the balance is hopelessly off: Only Tom Waits' haunting song "You Can Never Hold Back Spring" strikes the intended tone of bittersweet melancholy. As an Iraqi wordsmith haunted by the destruction of his homeland, Jean Reno lends the film what little gravity it possesses, but The Tiger And The Snow is otherwise a laughless one-man show that swings madly between faux-lyricism—Benigni's character is a poet—and manic stream-of-consciousness rambling. Late in the film, Benigni trudges obliviously through a literal minefield, an apt metaphor for the dangers of making a groaningly maudlin, sentimental comedy/drama/romance against the backdrop of the Iraq War. Benigni makes it through unscathed; his film isn't so lucky.
Key features: Forgettable deleted scenes, a fawning making-of documentary, and rambling interviews with Benigni and Braschi. Sadly for Pinocchio fans, there's no alternate cut with Benigni's voice dubbed in by Breckin Meyer.