It’s a strange confluence of events that finds Mafia Mamma opening at roughly the same time as The Pope’s Exorcist, another Italy-set film that invokes classic Italian motifs (the Mafia, the Vatican) to tell knowingly goofy, broad, Hollywood-style stories, both starring well-established Australian stars. The films couldn’t be further in style or tone, but both are a good example of the kind of film that gets pushed out after the big awards-season titles, before the mid-year blockbusters land, the kind of grabby diversions that can be relied on for a solid hour or two of entertainment. Mafia Mamma grabbed my attention for its director – Catherine Hardwicke, of Twilight fame, an American filmmaker of stories with crossover sensibility, stories that can play to a wider audience but shot through with just a touch of the raw, indie sensibility that she brought to early efforts like Lords of Dogtown and Thirteen. I’ve never really loved anything that she’s made, but her ability to find soon-to-be-stars and draw compelling performances out of them on the edge of their forthcoming boom, as she did with Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson, Heath Ledger and the like, is notable.
I went into Mafia Mamma with the highest of expectations, then, that one could probably muster for a film titled Mafia Mamma. Like The Pope’s Exorcist, if you’re sold on the title you’ll probably be the right mark for the film – no judgement, as I am one of them. I had the sense that this might be an eighties-style fish-out-of-water gem, the kind that struggles to make it to the big screen in modern times. The titular Mamma is Toni Collette, who stars as peppy American suburbanite Kristin, a woman suffering a serious crisis of self-worth and self-confidence. Neglected by her college-age son, overridden constantly by her sexist boss and cheated on by her husband, Kristin finds herself thrown into another world when she learns her estranged grandfather has died in Italy. Said grandfather just happens to be the head of one of two rival mobs in Italy, and his dying wish is that his long-lost granddaughter take over the helm when he’s gone. Suddenly Kristin is attempting to navigate the vicious world of the Mafia with the help of her confidante (and consigliere) Bianca, played by Monica Bellucci, and finding romance and self-worth in the telling.
Toni Collette stars in Catherine Hardwicke’s lumbering and overly-simplistic Mafia Mamma, a formulaic free throw that still manages to miss the posts due to its unexpected tonal shifts, a watery comedic tone and untenable moments of shocking violence.
It’s a perfectly juicy setup for a frothy romantic comedy, and Mafia Mamma clearly hopes to be mentioned in the vein of films like Eat Pray Love and Under the Tuscan Sun, both of which are namedropped several times throughout Mafia Mamma. Unfortunately, despite star Collette’s best efforts, the film is a tonal mess, unsure of what it wants to achieve and floundering between scenes without hitting marks of comedy and emotion it dearly needs to nail. The film is pure formula, and that’s all Mafia Mamma needed to be – but to do formula right, the structure needs to be tight. Colette’s performance is the fizzy centre of the film, but her high-pitched, doing-the-most performance grates against what Hardwicke seems to be attempting, which is sometimes a gritty crime thriller, other times a sweet story of a middle-aged woman finding love and purpose, and yet other times as a low-IQ action comedy a la Quentin Tarantino’s most amateurish imitators.
There is a way for Mafia Mamma to work in any of these iterations, but all mixed together makes for an unpleasantly sour brew. Worse still, it neglects to be funny. Moments that stretch desperately for jokes fall disappointingly flat, with the actors seeming unsure of just how to pitch each scene. The film name-checks every groan-worthy Mafia cliche, but also every rote female-empowerment cliche that felt stale ten years ago. This is not to account also for moments of shocking, gruesome violence, that seem to arrive out of another movie (perhaps the Tarantino one) altogether. A scene of eye-gouging midway through the film is especially gnarly for a title whose primary target audience is almost surely a certain breed of wine-sipping mums looking for a fun night out (and certain Coke-sipping film critics, it must be said). The surging undercurrent beneath Mafia Mamma is one of feminist sentiment, rightly reading the room and crafting a kind of revenge-based self-empowerment narrative of the ‘who run the world?’ variety. It’s an effective call-to-action, when pitched properly. Unfortunately, Mafia Mamma is ultimately as unsure of itself as its protagonist, a hopeless muddle of intentions that fail to provide a memorable spark.
Mafia Mamma in cinemas now.
Movie title: Mafia Mamma (Hardwicke, 2023)
Movie description: Toni Collette stars in Catherine Hardwicke’s lumbering and overly-simplistic Mafia Mamma, a formulaic free throw that still manages to miss the posts due to its unexpected tonal shifts, a watery comedic tone and untenable moments of shocking violence.
Date published: April 14, 2023
Country: United States
Author: Amanda Sthers, J. Michael Feldman, Debbie Jhoon
Director(s): Catherine Hardwicke
Actor(s): Toni Collette, Monica Bellucci, Sophia Nomvete,
Genre: Action, Comedy, Crime