You’ll have to forgive Toni Collette.
A wonderful actor, she’s pleased moviegoers over the years in films for a couple of decades now — The Sixth Sense, Little Miss Sunshine, In Her Shoes, Hereditary, The Hours, Knives Out.
Of course, like any actor, Collette’s filmography has its share of blemishes. Add to that list Mafia Mamma (in theaters Friday), a one-for-them slice of Gouda that hones in on the foibles of the privileged white suburban woman and dusts off the worst Italian stereotypes to create a film that could have been written by the film’s protagonist.
Collette’s Kristin is an archetype of characters featured in movies like this with women “of a certain age,” an expression in as dire need of retirement as the men who use it in this film. In film terms, “of a certain age” means Kristin: is married to a worthless ne’er-do-well (Tim Daish) who is cheating on her; has a son (Tommy Rodger) going off to college; and presents an eternally chipper demeanor that barely masks a complete sense of overwhelming anxiety over her station in life and her terror at her inability to manage it.
Kristin is focused on “building a life,” meeting the needs of the boys around her and focusing on her own needs second. She’d love to travel, experience winemaking, and have adventures, but it takes a lot of work to manage a household, job and family. She works as an advertising rep at a pharmaceutical company (because of course she does) listening to less-talented fail-upward men tell her how idiotic her ideas are because she wants to market to women. Of a certain age. Of course, her boss is aimed at his own target market of people like him — fragile, middle-aged men who are going bald but still want to ride jet skis.
Did I mention this is a mafia movie?
Yes, of course, because Kristin has a secret grandfather who lives in Italy, who happens to be a sommelier (for pretend) and the head of a notorious crime family (for real) in the midst of a war with another notorious crime family. When this secret grandfather dies, the Family summons Kristin to her homeland because it was her grandpa’s dying wish that … she take over the family business?
Exactly why he would want this is left ambiguous, but his underlings reluctantly go along with the old man’s plans. Kristin, to her credit, is horrified by the idea, but she just caught her douchebag husband in the basement with another woman, so why not?
If you’ve watched the trailer, or even just read what I have described about the movie so far, you can probably figure the rest out. It’s the classic fish-out-of-water story, where the fish, a blundering outsider in every way, perpetually outclasses and outfoxes the experts, stumbling around blissfully unaware all the while. She’s a more stereotypical, caricature-laden Jar Jar Binks.
She looks at her trip as her chance to take a selfish journey but finds herself solving the problems of a new group of people. Kristen spends most of the rest of the movie looking for her “eat pray fuck,” as the token best friend (Sophia Nomvete) implores her. Of course she meets a handsome Italian stranger (Giulio Corso) right off the plane and, despite all the violence that surrounds her, just wants to get laid.
The rest of the film is a series of mob misadventures, seemingly written by people who maybe caught parts of a couple of Martin Scorsese films some Saturday afternoon. Kristin gleans all of her mob information from The Godfather, a film she repeatedly points out she’s never seen. Her excuse to her horrified mafiosos: it’s hard for a mom and wife to carve out 3 ½ hours for a movie.
Monica Bellucci, another wonderful actor who’s been in a better movie or two, is Bianca, Kristin’s right hand, who both shares the rest of the mob’s bewilderment at Kristin’s appointment as the “Donna” of the family and insists that she respect her grandfather’s wishes. Bellucci’s role is oddly wishy-washy, vacillating between complete annoyance at Kristin’s ineptitude and doing her all to help her out.
And being a mob film there is a fair amount of violence, mostly slapstick-y shootouts and strangely graphic close encounters — including a sequence that includes impaled eye sockets and scrotal areas. It’s oddly R-rated for a demographic that largely likes its comedy PG-13.
There is a work-on-yourself-and-stop-trying-to-fix-everyone-else attitude at the heart of Mamma; for better or worse, at least the film is true to this mentality. The resolution is far from an unprecedented take on life and love, but at least is a somewhat accurate representation of working on yourself.
Director Catherine Hardwicke was once the next big thing in Hollywood, going back to her Sundance darling Thirteen. But after helming the first Twilight film, her career stalled somewhat — never again with anything as high-profile as either of those titles. She’s a talented director working here with hastily assembled, by-committee material. She infuses Mamma with more attitude than, quite frankly, the script deserves. The 1970s-style opening title font is fun (though it’s honestly a bit out of place), and the film itself looks good but still feels empty.
Mamma is made for (and, as it sometimes feels, by) an audience that might own a piece of framed art with the signature three-word Successories catchphrase the best friend riffs on … or perhaps “Live Laugh Love.” Either is an apt homage to the attitude, and vapid greeting-card mentality, this film seems to value.