You don't often see performers the caliber of Toni Collette and Monica Bellucci in a big, broad, kinda dumb comedy, in this case about an American housewife who becomes a mob boss.
So here’s something you don’t see a lot: a big, broad, frankly kind of dumb comedy, but starring two world-class actresses in Toni Collette and Monica Bellucci. They definitely elevate the material, in this case “Mafia Mamma,” a laugher about an insecure American housewife who goes to Italy for a funeral and winds up as a mob boss.
It’s the sort of thing you might find on one of those higher-number cable channels or second-tier streaming platforms, Budu or Fling or something. It’s good for a few yukks, and there’s a few morsels of deeper meaning about middle-aged women not being defined by the men in their lives, whether lunkheads or dreamboats.
Neither Collette or Bellucci are particularly known for their comedy chops, though they acquit themselves well enough in this middlebrow affair. Collette adds lots of grace notes and little asides as Kristin Balbano, who was born in Italy but fled to America as a child with her mother when her father was murdered, though she thinks it was an accident.
You really have to swallow a whole big pizza pie of suspension of disbelief — courtesy of screenwriters Amanda Sthers, J. Michael Feldman and Debbie Jhoon — to believe that her grandfather, Giuseppe (Alessandro Bressanello), would really insist on selecting a Yank who knows nothing of the family business or even speaks the language to succeed him in the event of his untimely death.
And a woman, to boot! The Italians being renowned for their love of pasta but also machismo culture.
(I won’t even question how Kristin’s strawberry blonde locks, alabaster skin and icy blue eyes are supposed to fit in with her very dark-haired and olive-skinned relations.)
Bellucci plays Bianca, sort of a consigliere figure, who introduces Kristin to her new situation. She’s smart, ruthless and measured, and would seem to be the perfect replacement for Don Giuseppe herself. But everyone insists on sticking with the wishes of the boss, recently made late in a gang war with the rival Romano family.
Waiting in the wings is cousin Fabrizio (Eduardo Scarpetta), a young hothead in the Sonny Corleone mold who thinks he should be sitting in the Don’s chair. In one of the film’s running jokes, not only are these Italian mafioso aware of “The Godfather” and other mob pop culture, they practically worship it.
Kristin herself has never seen it, though that’s what Wikipedia summaries are for.
Back home Kristin is a hectored wife, mom and pharmaceutical advertising honcho. Her son has just left for college and she’s experiencing major empty nest symptoms.
Her husband, Paul (Tim Daish), is one of those guys in his 40s who thinks his rock band is going to break through any day now, working at Starbucks in between chasing dreams. He’s also a serial cheater, the discovery of which is the nudge that convinces Kristin to accept the invite to Italy for her grandfather’s funeral.
Spurred on by her standard-issue sassy BFF Jenny (Sophia Nomvete), Kristin approaches the trip with something like self-interest and joy — a decided departure from a life where she always puts everyone else’s needs above her own.
She thinks she’s going to have one of those Mediterranean romance adventures as chronicled in books and movies like “Under the Tuscan Sun” and “Eat, Pray Love” — with the last word in the latter one altered to something cruder and more carnal. Things start off well, literally falling into the arms of a hottie, Lorenzo (Giulio Corso), at the airport.
Unexpected events at the funeral procession quickly school Kristin that the Balbano are not just humble vinters… another hint being that their wine tastes absolutely dreadful. She’s assigned a bumbling duo of bodyguards (Alfonso Perugini and Francesco Mastroianni) to act as her shadows and at-the-ready comic relief.
The actual plot of Kristin coming to grips with her mobbed-up past (and future?) proceeds without a lot of surprises. She’s anxious and whiny, and wonders why they can’t just offer concessions to their enemies and be done with it. There are several attempts on her life that Kristin manages to foil by accident, but which earn her the respect of the Balbanos and the other dons.
Eventually, Kristin finds she’s actually good at running a family business, especially after she steers away from drugs, guns and gambling and toward more wholesome activities like shipping in much-needed medicine from the States. Also expect much attempted canoodling, with both Lorenzo and a rival don figuring into her minx-like desire for some lovin’.
Bellucci and Collette fire up a lot more sparks in their scenes together than the ones with Kristin’s intended beaus. Frankly, I wanted more of that and wished the movie was rejiggered to make it more about their growing friendship/collaboration. For a flick that’s about female empowerment at its core, they keep missing the obvious play.
Director Catherine Hardwicke (“Thirteen,” “Twilight”) isn’t exactly a mistress of funny movies given her filmography, though like stars Collette and Bellucci shows previously untapped potential. I’d love to see what this trio could do with a premise and story that doesn’t feel like yesterday’s cannolis.