"Drive up to the clown. It's a Burger World town." —Fast-food jingle, Married To The Mob
Some directors are great because they see the world as it is; others are great because they see it as no one else could imagine. Jonathan Demme belongs in the latter category. It's a little hard to pin down that distinctive Demme touch—warm and humane without stifling earnestness, colorful without veering into grotesquerie—but his best films have a way of conforming the world to suit his oddball sensibility. Though Demme's latest effort, Rachel Getting Married (my favorite film of 2008, incidentally), concerns the calamitous results of a not-quite-reformed junkie descending on her sister's wedding, I'll remember it first and foremost as a rollicking weekend-long party. Yes, there are heartbreaking twists and turns, and more than a few painful reckonings, but Demme makes room for the full spectrum of emotions at the wedding; no matter what happens in the foreground, his typically impeccable taste in music (Robyn Hitchcock and TV On The Radio's Tunde Adebimpe are prominently featured) and sweet one-world ambience carry a more hopeful, celebratory tone. Demme movies like Rachel Getting Married, Melvin And Howard, and Something Wild, to name a few favorites, are deft, big-hearted, sprawling slices of Americana, and there's pleasure in them even when the characters' lives are in shambles.
Demme's 1988 comedy Married To The Mob is about as inconsequential as movies get, a day-glo riff on gangster stereotypes that takes place entirely in Demmeworld. None of the expected labels apply: It isn't a satire or a parody or a spoof, and though the jewelry, loud suits, and accents make it recognizable as a mafia cartoon, there are no explicit references to The Godfather, Scarface, or any other movie about organized crime. Working from a screenplay by Barry Strugatz and Mark R. Burns, Demme has endless fun with the magnified tackiness of ornate furs, pinky rings, and gold-plated off-the-truck decor, and the sheer incongruity of his elaborately coiffed goons whenever they step into the airport or the supermarket. The film features plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, but Demme isn't much of a gag-meister; the joy of Married To The Mob is more in the fine details of performance and production design than punchlines. Demme isn't into the hard sell.
None of it would work without Michelle Pfeiffer, who gets a few choice line-readings as disgruntled mob wife Angela de Marco—her pouty Long Island inflection on the declaration "I want a divorce!" is a particular highlight—but she's an essential grounding force for the goofballs in her orbit. She's married to "Cucumber" Frank de Marco (Alec Baldwin), a high-ranking mobster who works alongside such "garden-variety hoodlums" as Nick The Snake, Al The Worm, and Vinnie The Slug. (And from a rival family, there's also Jimmy Fisheggs, whose real name is James Roe.) Where gaudy necklaces and a steady supply of Valium are enough to corral the other wives, Angela has had enough of the life, and she wants out, for the sake of her young son, not to mention her eternal soul. In this scene, she confronts Frank about her unhappiness and gets the brush-off:
Turns out that divorce isn't necessary. It seems that Frank is sharing a mistress (Nancy Travis) with his boss, Tony "The Tiger" Russo, played by Dean Stockwell in his most Stockwellian performance this side of Blue Velvet. (And by "Stockwellian," I mean simultaneously squinty and debonair, though he projects a different brand of offbeat menace here.) When Tony whacks Frank and the mistress, it gives Angela the opportunity to flee, and opens Tony up to 24-hour surveillance by the feds. As countless gangsters and molls, real and fictional, have learned over the years, people only tend to leave the mob in body bags. Angela's biggest problem is that Tony has a thing for her, and hard as she tries to clean the slate and seek an honest life with her son in a Lower East Side hovel, Tony and his goons are intent on keeping her part of "the family." The feds on the case, played by Matthew Modine and Oliver Platt, are under the false impression that Angela reciprocates Tony's affections, so they're spying on her, too.
The 800-pound gorilla hanging over Tony and Angela is Tony's wife Connie, a self-proclaimed "ball-busta" who leads a hornets' nest of mob wives and is the one person Tony actively fears. And Mercedes Ruehl, who towers over Stockwell by about six inches, gives the film's most indelible comic performance, playing Connie as a sociopath who oscillates between sugar-sweet suburban housewife and stampeding Godzilla in gold lamé and leopard print. Though most mob wives are more like their husbands than they're willing to admit—witness Carmela Soprano, whose occasional pangs of Catholic guilt never stopped her from closing ranks—Connie reduces Tony to a quivering, emasculated runt every time she's in his presence. It's unlikely that the clown at Burger World—Chris Isaak!—would ever take shots at Connie if she were in charge. Ruehl does some wonderful things with her role, but the best touch is the way she modulates her voice when making a threat, hitting the sort of low registers that could never be associated with femininity. Here's Connie catching up with Tony at an airport terminal, perpetually (and rightfully) suspicious about his infidelity. (Side note: How many raccoons had to die to make that jacket?)
Lest Married To The Mob be brushed off as an exercise in kitsch—albeit an excellent one—Demme reserves a lot of genuine feeling for Angela, whose biographical particulars (raised in Queens, one semester at a beauty academy, great follicles) virtually guaranteed that she would end up with a slickster like "Cucumber" Frank de Marco. As much as Demme surrounds her with tacky nouveau-riche décor and colorful eccentrics, Angela's shot at a second chance on life is seen as courageous and hard-won. She's pounded the pavement like the rest of the stiffs who circle the classified ads and trudge from one humiliating job interview to the next; it's a steep drop from the Valium haze of her suburban life to the humble office of a leering Chicken Lickin' manager. It's a shame that Modine, the weak link in an otherwise terrific cast, isn't up to the task as an FBI agent who falls for her, but Pfeiffer doesn't need the support. As single-mother empowerment stories go, I think Married To The Mob stands up to many more austere treatments, owing to Demme and Pfeiffer's unironic commitment to the character's plight.
But beyond the fine performances and character work, the enduring pleasures of Married To The Mob are in its collection of offbeat details: The castle-themed restaurant King's Roost, where an armored knight serves as a doorman (and gets slapped around a bit), and the pianist serenades Tony "The Tiger" with his very own song; the Grecian statues and knickknacks at the Fantasia hotel, where Frank and Tony meet their mistress; the wonderfully eclectic soundtrack, which sets the tone with Rosemary Clooney's "Mambo Italiano" and follows up a commuter-train hit with New Order's "Bizarre Love Triangle"; the catchy Burger World jingle; the quirky outtakes and epilogue on the closing credits; and the usual gallery of Demme bit players who populate the margins. For a seemingly wacky, candy-colored comedy, Married To The Mob doesn't press hard for laughs, and that laid-back assurance is a key part of its charm. It's a movie to smile through.
(Programming note: Due to a run on available DVD copies, next week's planned entry for The Room has been postponed indefinitely. I hope to get back to it when the dust settles.)
Next week: King Of New York
Jan. 22: Mysterious Skin
Jan. 29: Bitter Moon
Feb. 5: Velvet Goldmine