In Mafia Mamma, Toni Collette Tries Doing Crimes But Can’t Get Past Mugging

Movies Reviews Toni Collette
In Mafia Mamma, Toni Collette Tries Doing Crimes But Can’t Get Past Mugging

Though gangsters and comedy have a long and productive history of mixing, Mafia Mamma is a particular throwback to the turn of the 21st century, when Warner Bros. goofed on its own history as a purveyor of 1930s and 1940s gangster classics by repeatedly asking, what if someone who wasn’t generally an obvious mafia guy (say, a Billy Crystal, Hugh Grant or Matthew Perry type) was forced to interact with someone steely and potentially murderous (say, a Robert De Niro, James Caan or Bruce Willis type)? And what if, at some point, said gangsters were forced by circumstance or creaky screenplays to act kinda silly in return?

To this formula, Mafia Mamma adds the question: What if that non-gangster type were a lady? And then follows up with a second question: Would this maybe count as doing a feminism? Because the general concept – Kristin (Toni Collette), an unsatisfied woman in her 40s, discovers she is heir to a powerful Italian mafia family – feels like it might have seemed au courant two decades ago, the film mistakes its messaging about gender inequity for, yeesh, rousing satire. That no one actually says “youse go, girl” qualifies as both a miracle and a perverse disappointment.

Kristin’s workaday life is introduced in a series of humiliations that audiences everywhere will hope get better – not necessarily Kristin’s situation, mind, but the jokes and their timing. Faced with a son leaving the nest for college and a cartoonish man-child of a philandering husband, goaded on by her sassy minority bestie Jenny (Sophia Nomvete) who lives only to serve and sometimes say “vagina,” Kristin says yes-and to a surprising phone call about the death of the grandfather she never knew. See, Kristin’s departed mother emigrated to the U.S. from Italy; despite her first-generation-American status, she has never further investigated her heritage, or even, apparently, evinced much interest in her almost-homeland beyond Stanley Tucci’s travel shows. She agrees to attend the funeral, hoping to do her own version of Eat, Pray, Love. Only – get this — Jenny, being, again, a sassy minority character who lives to serve and sometimes say “vagina,” amends it to Eat, Pray, Fuck.

Upon her arrival in Italy, Kristin immediately falls in lust with handsome young pasta-maker Lorenzo (Giulio Corso) and, shortly thereafter, discovers that she is being recruited to run the family business. Longtime family consigliere Bianca (Monica Bellucci) knows more about the ins and outs, but isn’t a family member; fiery-tempered Fabrizio (Eduardo Scarpetta) feels he’s being passed over. Kristin initially hopes to pass the job on to Fabrizio, but with Bianca’s help, she charms and girlbosses her way through negotiations with rival families – and her lifelong dream of winemaking in the country it never occurred to her to visit. Rather than satirize the white-lady nonsense of Eat, Pray, Love or Under the Tuscan Sun or drawing connections between those types of wealth-enabled movies and the macho largesse of gangster epics like The Godfather, the movie simply imitates an empowerment fantasy and dumbs it way down. Kristin spends a lot of time finding out how great she is.

How in the world did Nia Vardalos not write, direct or star in this movie? At least Toni Collette has learned from her erstwhile Connie and Carla co-star, bravely pioneering a new paradoxical acting technique that will be known going forward as resting mugging face. Even in Kristin’s quietest, most contemplative moments, Collette can’t stop bugging her eyes or yanking down her mouth – which, to be fair, is a natural reaction to being repeatedly poisoned over the course of 101 endless minutes. It’s easy to imagine Melissa McCarthy or Anna Faris willing Mafia Mamma into some proper comic set pieces; Collette is a more prestigious performer, and hardly inexperienced at comedy, but she just goes with the movie’s distractingly erratic flow. She does what is asked of her, with rubbery, misguided gusto, and the movie’s big comedy ideas, many of which involve Collette making a “yikes!” face during scenes of surprisingly gory mayhem, simply bounce off of her and land with a thud.

Screenwriters J. Michael Feldman and Debbie Jhoon, working from an “original idea” credited to novelist Amanda Sthers, have sitcom experience, but maybe not enough of it; the cornball contrivances never form their own comic language. Or maybe this just isn’t the area for director Catherine Hardwicke, best known for movies with a harder edge (Lords of Dogtown; Thirteen) or a dark-fairy-tale sparkle (Twilight; Red Riding Hood). It’s easy to imagine that Hardwicke has experienced a lot of sexist Hollywood bullshit firsthand, and might connect with Kristin’s plight at work, where men dismiss her while rubber-stamping each other’s ideas. This also, however, seemingly leads her to try taking Mafia Mamma legit, translating it into a real cry of middle-aged feminist rage over all the ways women are expected to put others’ needs before their own.

This would be fine if Mafia Mamma were at all funny – if its doofus male characters had more going on than self-evident tantrums of insecurity, or if Kristin had a point of view more detailed than a generic set of grievances, or if the movie had a sense of comic logic rather than a general idea that in comedies, idiotic things happen to dim people. Instead, there is one (1) very good joke, a visual nod to The Godfather that pays off a heretofore weak running gag about Kristin never having seen it. This and all the R-rated viscera are Hardwicke’s only real stabs at directing visual comedy – and the only real signs that anyone making the movie has seen any more gangster classics than Kristin.

Director: Catherine Hardwicke
Writer: Amanda Sthers, J. Michael Feldman, Debbie Jhoon
Starring: Toni Collette, Monica Bellucci, Giulio Corso, Eduardo Scarpetta
Release Date: April 14, 2023

Jesse Hassenger is associate movies editor at Paste. He also writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including Polygon, Inside Hook, Vulture, and SportsAlcohol.com, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching or listening to, and which terrifying flavor of Mountain Dew he has most recently consumed.

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