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Stereotypical Italian music—florid strings and soulful trumpets—swells as gunshots ring out and dead bodies and squashed tomatoes pile up around a gorgeous stone fountain. A woman in black stilettos walks through the carnage. It’s Monica Bellucci. She spots a man with a gun in the distance. “This means war,” she says as she spits on the ground, and the film’s title “Mafia Mamma”—in “The Godfather” font—is the finishing touch that lets us know just what kind of pastiche we’re in for.
Unfortunately, the film, directed by Catherine Hardwicke from a screenplay by Michael J. Feldman and Debbie Jhoon, based on a story by Amanda Sthers, does not focus on Bellucci’s mafia general Bianca. Instead, we’re introduced to meek, perpetually-clad-in-beige helicopter mom Kristin (Toni Collette, who also serves as producer). Her husband Paul (Tim Daish) is an unfaithful man-child in a mediocre band, her son Domenick (Tommy Rodger) has just gone to college, and her job marketing beauty pharmaceuticals to cancer patients is as unfulfilling and soul-crushing as it sounds. Her only sexual gratification comes from watching Stanley Tucci’s show on Food Network. Just when things look like they can’t get worse, her life changes irrevocably when her estranged grandfather dies, and she’s called to Italy for the funeral.
After the success of Hardwicke and Collette’s last collaboration, the wonderfully layered female friendship in 2015’s dramedy “Miss You Already,” a re-teaming was definitely welcomed. However, “Mafia Mamma” is a premise in search of fleshed-out characters. The Italian and clueless American stereotypes wouldn’t be so terrible if the film succeeded in being a satire, or at least the jokes were ever funny. Instead, "Mafia Mamma" lives in the uncanny valley between incompetent and unwatchable.
Somewhere in here is a commentary on how women of a certain age are treated, but the film’s ideas are deeply rooted in outdated notions of female empowerment. Kristin is the best marketer at her pharmaceutical company, yet the three men she’s always in meetings with disregard her ideas in favor of babes on jet skis. But it’s unclear if Kristin even knows her work is detrimental to women. In the mafia family in which she now finds herself the Don, her male cousin feels entitled to be in charge, despite Kristin’s new ideas revitalizing the (still illegal) business. It’s the 'girl bossification' of the mafia.
Worst of all is the half-hearted attempt to mix “chick flick” Italian iconography into the mob movie milieu. Although Kristin says she wants her “Under the Tuscan Sun” or “Eat. Pray. Love.” moment, the writers don’t seem to know what those films are about. There are few scenes of Kristin orgiastically eating Italian food, and no shots could even remotely be labeled as food porn. She never really gets to know the town of Lazio or its people. Even the beautiful countryside is barely filmed. Kristin herself is later portrayed as not aware of the films she evoked. At one point, a rival mob boss has to explain limoncello to her in a scene that is almost completely word-for-word ripped from the movie version of ... “Under the Tuscan Sun.”
Her best friend Jenny (Sophia Nomvete) tells her she should “Eat, Pray, F**k,” yet the film never grants Kristin the pleasure. After a five-minute scene in which she fights off a would-be murderer and rapist, offing him for good in an incredibly gruesome manner, she and her new lover Lorenzo (Giulio Corso) make out for a brisk 30 seconds. The film cuts to black before any of the sex actually happens.
Oddly, this fight sequence is the only scene in the whole film with any of Hardwicke’s biting personality. As Kristin fights for her life, Hardwicke cuts between the fight and a Zoom meeting where her male co-workers plan out yet another sexist ad campaign for an anti-aging drug they plan to market to older women. The juxtaposition between Kristin literally being attacked and the metaphorical attack on women through the misogynistic advertisements is thrilling. If only the rest of the film showed a modicum of this same intentionality, it might have been something special.
“Mafia Mamma” plays like nothing more than an excuse for Collette, Hardwicke, and company to vacation in Italy. But the audience isn’t even granted a trip worth remembering. Viewers searching for a virtual escape to Italy are better off sticking with Kristin’s beloved Stanley Tucci food show. At least that series aims for an authentic appreciation of the culture.
Now playing in theaters.
Toni Collette as Kristin
Monica Bellucci as Bianca
Eduardo Scarpetta as Fabrizio