Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Everybody Deserves A Second Chance

Released in August 1988, Jonathan Demme’s MARRIED TO THE MOB came less than two years after his remarkable SOMETHING WILD and while it continues the previous film’s portrayal of a type of Americana Funk that the director really began to excel in around this time within its stylistic extremes it’s also a much more minor work. Very lightweight stuff, it plays more like a lark than just about anything he’s done throughout his long career. For all I know this tone was an extremely strenuous thing to pull off for the director, but the fact is that it's the style combined with how the film uses its actors that you remember about it after the final credits have rolled, certainly more than anything about the story. It’s to Demme’s credit that he keeps what little depth it all has limited to making sure that the people never wind up as caricatures but for the most part it has about as much substance as listening to Rosemary Clooney sing “Mambo Italiano”, the song that enjoyably plays over the opening credits. It’s all a great deal of fun, but extreme depth shouldn’t be what you’re looking for. It is, however, a nice reminder of the much more playful director that Demme used to be as well as being a look at emerging talents from back in 1988, some of whom were also seen in the New York-shot WORKING GIRL the very same year. I can also remember it playing great with a crowd and if the biggest beef I can have with a movie is that it’s ultimately kind of minor, well, there are worse things you can say about something.

Angela DeMarco (Michelle Pfeiffer) is feeling dissatisfied by her marriage to Long Island mobster Frank “The Cucumber” DeMarco (Alec Baldwin), with even her pleas for divorce received with nothing but laughter. When Frank is abruptly killed by mob boss Tony “The Tiger” Russo (Dean Stockwell) after Tony discovers they’ve been sharing the same mistress (Nancy Travis), Angela grabs the opportunity to flee the life, taking son Joey with her and moving to a tiny apartment in lower Manhattan. But leaving the life isn’t as easy as she thought, with Tony’s interest in her leading the FBI to suspect that she had a hand in Frankie’s death. As Agent Mike Downey (Matthew Modine) keeps tabs on her in the new building while trying to keep her from finding out who he is and Tony continues his pursuit, arousing the suspicions of jealous wife Connie (Mercedes Ruehl), Angela realizes that leaving the mob behind is easier said than done.

Revisiting MARRIED TO THE MOB after several years away reveals a film that is very, very light on story, one that goes straight for the laughs found in this zany world more than anything as it tries to keep everything as broad as possible. Made two years before GOODFELLAS was released and over a decade before THE SOPRANOS, the finished product could have been a crass, unfunny film placed in the wrong hands (speaking of which, the script is by Barry Strugatz and Mark R. Burns, the men also responsible for writing the crass, unfunny SHE DEVIL) but it’s all made extremely enjoyable by Demme’s continued comic inspiration which never seems to let up for a second. He crams every single frame with lots of activity, yes, but he also allows his mobster characters to be more likable than you would expect in believably good and bad ways, with a spirit to everything that becomes infectious. He manages to humanize everyone, even the bit players, no matter how crazy they are which all keeps MARRIED TO THE MOB high-spirited and actually endearing even as the bodies begin to fly. As written the script barely seems to contain a speck of believable human behavior (David Johansen turning up as a priest gives an idea of the reality the film is going for) but Demme never allows it to become too screwy, keeping up a visual style that is consistently active and interested in everything going on, including an early version of the first-person camerawork that would be used so prominently in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS a few years later. True, the plot never becomes all that strong—little is done with the farcical setup of Mike and Angela living in the same building (they could have gotten a whole sitcom out of that setup), the second act barely seems to have gotten going before it all begins to propel towards the climax and there doesn’t even seem to be much tension between the two leads as we reach the end, but the continued good feelings it gives off make it so these things don’t matter all that much. On a thematic level it bears some similarities to SOMETHING WILD in its use of traveling into the world of lower Manhattan (seemingly a mainstay of films released by Orion during these years) towards more artistic pursuits from the constraining environment of Long Island but it really does feel like the film is just more interested in the craziness of it all. In some ways, the film could be viewed as a way station between the darker themes of SOMETHING WILD and the deadly serious elements of SILENCE, just a fun stopover to have one more enjoyable party with friends before it’s time to grow up and start making the serious movies.

There are gobs of funny dialogue throughout (I remember Trey Wilson’s line about the difference between the mob and the FBI getting the biggest laugh of the night back in the 80s) but the real enjoyment comes from the invention Demme constantly tosses in there, from the music that turns up in nearly every scene to how he sticking interesting personalities into bit parts as well as not one but two fast food franchises (given the names Chicken Lickin’ and Burger World, the latter with its own theme song) invented just for this movie. But he keeps things level-headed enough that even in this farcical context the characters always make sense--Connie might be a monster who you’d never want to cross but ultimately she’s just a woman hurt that her husband is cheating on her. The infamous end credit sequence which reveals bits of cut scenes (mostly it’s very easy to determine where they would have gone) offers the impression that Demme wanted everything to be as energetic as possible so he could keep things moving—most of the deleted stuff we see appears to be some minor plot points, introspective character stuff and some shoe leather, things which ultimately aren’t missed. The film knows to keep it moving, keep it all popping, getting things down to 95 minutes and change minus those credits. Fluff, yes, but it’s got a pulse that lends a feel of vibrancy to every single moment and it even has a certain amount of heart, which is certainly something.

Michelle Pfeiffer is extremely endearing in the lead role, maybe my favorite performance of hers from this period. She seems to know how to play things for laughs while still making the character likable and it adds immeasurably to the fun. Boy, is she cute in this movie. Modine has some nice moments scattered in there but at times feels like he may be trying too hard to be equally ingratiating—the nuttiness he’s supposed to project comes off as a little overly calculated as opposed to feeling like it comes naturally from the character. Stockwell, Oscar nominated for this role, is fantastic as Tony the Tiger, projecting quirky intelligence into his villain and never makes his presence too heavy for the humor. Mercedes Ruehl, who deserved to be Oscar nominated for this role, is both freakishly hilarious and utterly terrifying throughout. She doesn’t just steal every scene she’s in, she grabs it from the other actors and chomps it to bits right in front of them while always making her over-the-top character somehow credible. Alec Baldwin, in one of his five movies from 1988, is so much fun as Frankie that it’s a shame he has to be gone by the twenty minute mark—there’s no surprise that the actor got very big very fast. Joan Cusak, Ellen Foley and O-Lan Jones are three other mob wives, Oliver Platt is Modine’s partner, Chris Isaak is a hitman, Demme regulars like Charles Napier, Paul Lazar and Tracey Walter turn up briefly, ‘Sister’ Carol East from the end of SOMETHING WILD is Angela’s new boss and Trey Wilson is the FBI regional director. It’s a huge, and hugely fun, cast--by the time Al Lewis turns up, it seems like everyone is in this movie. Todd Solondz is ‘The Zany Reporter’ and Roma Maffia is ‘Angie’s First Customer!’ among the many other oddly familiar people spotted throughout. Even people who just wander past the camera for a few seconds seem to make an impression. For all the terrific songs throughout (I really should get the CD), it’s easy to miss how enjoyable David Byrne’s score is, with a very nice theme for Angela that helps give the movie such endearing vibes and a funny recurring saxophone riff that isn’t so much a theme for the character of Tony as it is for his libido.

I don’t know if there’s any one particularly outstanding scene or element in MARRIED TO THE MOB that sticks out in memory but the overall experience is still a lot of fun. I definitely remember it playing great with a crowd on a Saturday night at the Scarsdale Plaza way back when. After years of Oscars and more serious efforts (not to mention the lousy THE TROUBLE WITH CHARLIE, which could be seen as an attempt to recapture this kind of spark) at this point in time it feels safe to say that Jonathan Demme may very well never make a film this breezily enjoyable again, which really is our loss. A true sense of playfulness carries it all the way to the end, even to a lovely brief sequence after the end credits that gives the feel of a party that doesn’t want to end. With a film as much fun as this is, there’s no reason to want it to either.


Joe Valdez said...

Wonderful post, Peel. Stop Making Sense and The Silence of the Lambs are minor masterpieces, but I wish I could get as excited about Jonathan Demme as someone like Paul Thomas Anderson apparently does.

I love idiosyncratic movies that thrive more on mood and atmosphere than plot, but you're right, these are "larks" that really aren't for everybody, at least not me.

Ned Merrill said...

I'm generally in agreement, Mr. Peel. SOMETHING WILD is one of my favorite movies of any era. I came to MARRIED TO THE MOB late and it's somewhat of a trifle in the Demme oeuvre. I found that I was most taken with, and pleasantly surprised by, Pfeiffer. I was never a big fan of hers, but she is as you say, irresistibly cute and endearing here and found myself really rooting hard for her.

I grew up really enjoying Modine performances in films like FULL METAL JACKET, BIRDY, VISION QUEST, STREAMERS, etc. I find him here to be mostly cloying and as light and insignificant as his detractors often say he is. Even though he and Pfeiffer are about the same age he comes off as a schoolboy out of his league.

I did, however, get a real kick out of the way Demme used the lighthouse in Dumbo, at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge, as Modine's house. While it might have seemed somewhat edgy back then, Dumbo has since become completely chic and gentrified, so the idea of it being the "off the map" home of Modine seems all the more ridiculous and unrealistic to my eyes. But, since reality is the farthest thing from Demme's goal, I can go with it. FYI, the lighthouse now houses a very popular ice cream parlor.

Not so keen on the all mob humor, but then I've never been a great aficionado of mafia films and shows. However, I do love all the decidedly Demme touches--Tracey Walter as the pervert owner of the chicken establishment; the catchy, leftfield soundtrack (New Order, Chris Isaak, Tom Tom Club, David Byrne score, and "Goodbye Horses"); the New York locations that are gritty and beautiful at once.

Good call on the Orion films of the '80s-early '90s and the common theme of good NY location work--SOMETHING WILD, F/X, STATE OF GRACE, MARRIED TO THE MOB, DESPERATELY SEEKING SUSAN, PRINCE OF THE CITY come readily to mind.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...


Thanks very much. I suppose I'm one of those people who loves Demme but, also like some people, after SILENCE OF THE LAMBS I lose interest. It was as if winning the Oscar caused him to lose the sense of playfulness he used to have, a sense of humanity without making a big deal about it, things that were so vital to why people loved them.


Many thanks for your comments here. You're right about the age thing in regards to Modine, that hadn't occured to me. She's something like a year older but comes off as much more worldly, even if her character has presumably been sheltered most of her life.

Dumbo is actually a place that I have no personal experience with--I guess I never went to Brooklyn all that much--but I certainly wondered how different the neighborhood Angela moves to is now compared to the way it looked then. There's probably a Starbucks on the corner.

The NY location work used in some of those Orion films of the time (some of the Woody Allen films count too, I guess) is a common element that I always enjoy about them--F/X definitely counts in that list! The feel that they have is a New York that I really miss.