Toni Collette’s ‘Mafia Mamma’ Is a Shocking Disaster of a Movie

Toni Collette’s ‘Mafia Mamma’ Is a Shocking Disaster of a Movie

On the sheer strength of its delightfully dopey poster alone, Mafia Mamma (in theaters Friday), was one of my most anticipated movies of the year. Really, what’s not to appreciate? Toni Collette—the titular Mafia Mamma in question—sits with an impish smirk on her face, sprawled out before a bottle of wine and a smoking gun. She is flanked by two tall, similarly gun-toting men, whose faces are cut off from the artwork. Who cares about them? This is about her: the suburban mom turned mafia don, who seemingly just shot someone dead and is so pleased that she’s celebrating with a glass of vino.

If you, like me, thought that this combination of things would surely result in brilliant cinema—and definitely not an unredeemable disaster that isn’t worth watching—it brings me no pleasure to tell you that you’re wrong. And that’s what makes it so puzzling. Mafia Mamma has all of the right ingredients, but director Catherine Hardwicke treats the complicated science of movie-making like an improvisational linguine dish rather than a delicate tiramisu. If you over-whip one ingredient, or mix two things together at the incorrect time, the sugary sweetness might still pack a small punch, but the consistency will be all wrong. (Or something. I’m not a baker.)

Collette—who is also a producer on the film—stars as Kristin Balbano, a beleaguered working mom who has just shipped her son off to college (homemade trail mix in hand), and found her marriage falling apart as a result. Kristin isn’t taken seriously at her high-level advertising agency or by her philandering husband, and is in desperate need for a change. As if a sign from the cherubic Italian angels, she receives a call from Bianca (Monica Bellucci), a close friend of her grandfather’s, to alert Kristin to his passing. Bianca would love for Kristin to come to Italy for the funeral, and Kristin would love an all-expense-paid vacation.

Kristin expects her grandfather’s procession to be the first, most morbid stop on her Eat, Pray, Love journey. That is, until gunfire pings off the chapel’s stone walls, and a shootout between everyone present bumps “pray” up to the top of her to-do list. Bianca tells Kristin that their family vineyard is just a front—that’s why the wine is so shit. The Balbanos are really the head of an organized crime family, and are engaged in a war with the Romanos, who run the neighboring territories. Kristin’s grandfather wanted her to take over the family business in the event of his death, and Kristin is already in too deep to get out.

Bleecker Street

On paper, all of that sounds like a surefire hit. And for a brief moment—in the chic opening sequence that finds Monica Bellucci clomping her heels around a sea of dead bodies and professing, “This means war”—it seems that Mafia Mamma would live up to all of that potential. But once the fabulous title card fades, the film plummets in a state of total, tragic freefall. Its descent may be occasionally suspended in air by the luminosity of Collette and Bellucci, but even their committed performances aren’t enough to hold up the weight of the cinder blocks strapped to Mafia Mamma’s proverbial feet.

Blessedly, it doesn’t take too long for Kristin to arrive in Italy. Mafia Mamma breezes past its exposition to get to the real reason ticket holders paid the cost of admission: to see Collette in over her head, when all her character wants is some tasty gelato. From the moment her plane touches down, Kristin is on the hunt for a man. The film’s screenwriters don’t make any effort to concoct a nuanced, realistic version of Italy. They’re happy to portray a total stereotype every chance they get, starting as soon as the airport. Of course, Kristin meets a guy while trying to find her ride; Italy is a country filled with horny playboys, after all!

Cue the first of many erroneous editing mishaps that somehow made it into the final cut. After exchanging numbers with her suitor, Lorenzo (Giulio Corso), in the airport taxi line, Kristin says goodbye, and suddenly, Lorenzo’s cab is completely gone. The viewer never sees Lorenzo enter it, nor do they see it speeding away. All we’re given is a baffling smash-cut to Kristin celebrating her win, while the rest of us are left scratching our heads.

This is not the last time a bewildering editing mistake happens, either. Random establishing shots will bulldoze their way into the middle of a walk-and-talk dolly sequence, after the same establishing shot had already been seen, minutes before. It would be one thing if everything else happening around these aberrations was firing on all cylinders. But on almost every front, Mafia Mamma is amateurishly cobbled together and spit out onto the silver screen.

Collette is a highly skilled comedic actress, but the dated script fails her. Mafia Mamma is filled to the brim with antiquated humor that needed at least three separate rounds of script punch-ups before cameras ever started rolling.

Collette is saddled with an unforgiving, one-note character. Kristin’s dopey persona works in her favor way too often. She frequently saves her own life by accident, in scenes that lose their microscopic shreds of humorous luster the more they’re repeated. When she does get some agency, it’s forced by a dreadful and mind-boggling attempt-rape “gag,” where Kristin takes out the perverted member of the opposing crime family with a high heel that’s just as effective in the testicles as it is the eye sockets. The fight sequence has none of the style or actual real-life emotional gravity that it would need to make it a convincing addition to the film. But if you like Halloween-store-level, slapstick gore, you’ll jump out of your seat.

None of the other efforts at humor are any more effective. The Italian characters function like trite clichés, who are always shouting Super Mario-level Italian phrases, gobbling up pasta, and getting mad that Kristin hasn’t watched The Godfather—a joke that’s well-run into the ground by the fifth time it falls clumsily out of an actor’s mouth. Bellucci is, thankfully, a godsend of brief relief whenever she trounces into a scene and says some gonzo line. But even her level of dedication, and undeniable chemistry with Collette, can’t buoy this sinking ship for long.

At least the film adaptation of Eat, Pray, Love—mentioned incessantly, as if the audience needs multiple references to remember most popular autobiographies of all time—had the good sense to fill the screen with gorgeous scenery. Mafia Mamma is bizarrely bland, relying on the local sights for all of its visual style. The country of Italy (and all of its film grants and tax breaks) can only do so much heavy lifting.

With a deficiency of aesthetic flair and a total misunderstanding of what tracks for a joke, let alone comedic timing, past 2010, Hardwicke’s direction further quashes all of the film’s promise before it even reaches its halfway point.

Throughout Mafia Mamma’s 101-minute runtime, I found myself searching for a kernel of camp, an ion of irony, or even a morsel of monkey business. I was desperate to wring anything out of the movie could be added to the cult-favorite canon, but the whole endeavor suffered from a dismal lack of self-awareness. Though Collette and Bellucci give it their eccentric best, everything else about Mafia Mamma kneecaps its star players, taking what the stars give and grape-stomping it into incoherent mush. A little mobster drug-running and gun-smuggling are nothing compared to the unforgivable crime of doing so little with endless possibilities.

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