Mambo Italiano

As Italian anti-defamation groups chase down The Sopranos, the richest show on television, for perpetuating negative stereotypes, the grotesque comedy Mambo Italiano will likely get a free pass, if only because its stereotypes are innocuous. Which is more offensive? A complex, realistic drama about a New Jersey mob family, or a house run by a pair of honey-baked hams who pinch cheeks, gesticulate wildly, run their words together ("youseewhatchoodotoyomamma?"), and slap their grown children on the back of the head? No one carries any guns, but no one carries much dignity, either. A calculated hybrid of two overplayed arthouse subgenres–the My Big Fat Greek Wedding-style ethnic sitcom and the innocuous coming-out drama–Mambo Italiano needs only a laugh track to slip into CBS's new fall schedule. It's telling that the film's hero, a closeted 27-year-old from a Montreal suburb, has no greater ambition than to write for television. When Luke Kirby decides to move out to pursue his sweeps-week dreams, the news comes as a shock to parents Paul Sorvino and Ginette Reno, first-generation immigrants who believe marriage or death are the only legitimate reasons to leave home. Though relieved when Kirby picks up estranged childhood buddy Peter Miller for a roommate, Sorvino and Reno are newly horrified to discover that their son and his reunited friend are lovers. Knowing that a slap to the head won't solve this problem, they team up with Miller's noxious mother (Mary Walsh) to find nice, big-haired Italian girls for their boys, but Kirby proves more stubborn than they hoped. Mama goes to confession, Papa gets an ulcer, and Kirby's hysterical older sister (Claudia Ferri) pops more Valium than ever. No one ever shouts "Mamma Mia," but they all have occasion to. The occasional bursts of Pedro Almodóvar-like color and outrageousness seem to justify the over-the-top caricatures at times, especially with the scenes involving Sorvino and Reno, whose bickering recalls the Costanzas on Seinfeld. But writer-director Émile Gaudreault wants his heartwarming tolerance drama, too, and the two tones aren't compatible as the film lurches between earnest and wacky. Mambo Italiano works overtime to reconcile the old-world foundations of family and home with new-world changes like third-floor walk-ups and hot gay sex, but Gaudreault favors whipped-up, faux-stormy emotions and cute accordion cues over patient observation. If Gaudreault's 90-minute pilot ever makes it to television, French-Canadians can look forward to their own Italian version of A.K.A. Pablo.

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