Organized crime, usually the Italian variety, has always been an alluring setting for film and television. Dramas and comedies have both mined this world for material. And it’s often glamorized along the way. Stories that center women in that atmosphere are rare. Unfortunately, Mafia Mamma squanders that potential with a script so weak that even a talented director and actors can’t salvage it.
Toni Collette is a gifted actress and she takes the lead role here, which hasn’t happened often in her long career. Italian movie star Monica Bellucci appears in the largest supporting role. Catherine Hardwicke, of the first Twilight film, takes on directing duties. Two of the three writers of the screenplay are also women. With this much female contribution, this film could have resulted in something that was truly special. Even within the confines of a fish-out-of-water comedy, a subtle and nuanced message about women in a man’s world was possible. The story does something much broader and less interesting with the humor and plot instead.
The laughs of Mafia Mamma frequently miss the mark, while other details of the screenplay and visual execution of the film are also disappointing. In fact, a few moments reach the level of an unappealing viewing experience.
“I support your right to be angry.”
Collette plays Kristin Balbano, an American mom who just sent her son off to college. Then, on the same day, she catches her husband cheating on her and finds out the grandfather she never knew has died in Italy. She decides it’s time for a “me” adventure. She gets much more than she bargained for when she attends the funeral. Armed thugs shoot at the procession and the truth comes out: Kristin’s grandfather was the head of a mafia family. And she is his successor, as her father was killed when she was a baby.
Initially, Kristin wants nothing to do with this. She just wants her “Eat, Pray, Love” vacation. (Or, as she irritatingly calls it, “Eat, Pray, F*ck.”) This illustrates the first fundamental flaw of this film. The lead character does not function well as a conduit for the audience. Kristin isn’t relatable as much as she is flighty and cliched. She is too open with the cute guy she meets at the airport, Lorenzo (Giulio Corso), and she’s never seen The Godfather (“It’s really hard to find 3 and a half hours!”). Bianca (Bellucci), her grandfather’s secretary, informs her that the Romano family wants the Balbano family territory. That’s why they attacked the funeral, and Kristen’s family needs her because the next nearest relative is violent hothead cousin Fabrizio (Eduardo Scarpetta).
“You can’t turn your back on your destiny.”
So Kristin tries to take the lead in negotiating with the Romanos. More cliche comes in with the script’s presentation of the mobsters. For example, they all spit when their enemy’s name is mentioned. During Kristin’s first meeting with the Romano leader, things get ridiculous. He’s a good-looking guy, so goes along with it when he starts coming onto her. He’s tricking her so he can poison her, though, but she turns this around on him through sheer dumb luck. There are some very gross details in this sequence. And they’re not necessary. She has more respect from everyone now, though, so…yay?
While she meets with Lorenzo again, the Romanos send an assassin after Kristin. He attacks her while she is trying to do a Zoom meeting for her pharmaceutical marketing job. Her coworkers dismiss her input and then mute her so they don’t notice her fighting for her life. This scene adds more of the grossness and ridiculousness as she manages to kill the assassin with the high heel of a shoe. It all really strains credulity. Her coworkers are sexist to the point of caricature, too. Then they fire her! The only way to describe it all is over-the-top. In a bad way.
“I never knew you were such a badass.”
However, the Romanos submit to peace after this and Kristin concentrates on the legitimate wine business her grandfather operated while still seeing Lorenzo. She begins a pharmaceutical supply aspect to the business as well. This begins to cut into the Romano’s profits so conflict arises again. They don’t get a chance to really fight, though, because cops bust in to arrest them and one of them turns out to be Lorenzo. Kristin is acquitted at a trial when she emotionally relates her journey of growth. Then as a final cap to all this craziness, Fabrizio tries to take over as Balbano family boss and he ends up dead too.
Like I said, the bad kind of over-the-top. If the writers thought they were conveying some sort of feminist empowerment message, they dropped the ball. That theme just doesn’t mesh harmoniously with the violent tone of most of the story. Hardwicke gives the camera work and staging a lot of energy sometimes but that can only take the film so far. And the same goes for the performances. Collette is fabulous but her character is not up to her level. Overall, Mafia Mamma feels like it should have been more fun, funnier, and more sophisticated.
2 1/2 stars out of 5
Mafia Mamma is now playing in theaters.