Movies, like holidays, are an escape from regular life. Some holidays are exciting and mysterious, others are a package trip where you know exactly what you’re getting from the moment you take flight. And then there are holidays like Mafia Mamma, which promise a lot of scenic countryside and delicious food but end up with someone being dropped feet-first into a grape crusher.
When people-pleaser Kristen (Toni Collette) gets a call from Bianca (Monica Bellucci) telling her that the Italian grandfather she never knew is dead and she has to fly over for the funeral immediately, it’s a sign of just how mousey she is that she hesitates. It’s not like there’s much keeping her at home, what with a cosmetics job where she’s ignored, a son (Tommy Rodger) heading off to college and a deadbeat husband (Tim Daish) cheating on her with a bandmate.
Even after all that, it takes lawyer bestie Jenny (Sophia Nomvete) ordering her to embrace this chance to, as she puts it, ‘eat, pray, fuck’, to get Kristen on the plane. Sure, funerals are sad, but this is all about going on a holiday to a luscious tourist destination to try the food, drink the wine, and sleep with a hunky stranger or two … right up until the moment Bianca tells her that dear old grandpa was a mob boss and now she’s in charge of the family.
Movies where average folk fall in with organised crime with hilarious (ok, ‘hilarious’) results aren’t anything new. Not that anyone’s been rewatching Mickey Blue-Eyes or Married to the Mob recently. And while it seems at first that the twist here will involve mixing Eat, Pray, Love style foodie tourism with mob shenanigans, Mafia Mamma rapidly becomes more about a particularly bloody strand of female empowerment.
Kristen’s crime family – which largely seems to consist of her two bodyguards and angry pretender to the throne Fabrizio (Eduardo Scarpetta) – are in the middle of a turf war, which explains why she’s in town for a funeral. The rival mob are a collection of sleazy sexist creeps; Kristen’s side (Bianca aside) might not be much better.
Fortunately, Kristen turns out to be a somewhat skilled assassin. Sometimes it’s an accident; other times (like when she despatches a rapey hitman with a shoe to the eye during a zoom call with her misogynist bosses), she’s not messing around.
These kills are more about catharsis than comedy. That explains director Catherine Hardwicke’s slightly confronting gore in an otherwise lightweight comedy, while Collette sells the whiplash changes in her character perfectly. She’s easily the best thing here, making an otherwise bland cliché of a character into someone you really do want to succeed as a mob boss. But while Kristen gets solid support from her crime family, Mafia Mamma isn’t so supportive of Collette.
There’s more than enough going on here to make this an engaging watch. The idea of mixing in a foodie tourism movie with a mafia comedy is a good one; throwing in a layer of female empowerment via mob murders holds up well too. But too often this feels like there’s too much going on for any one element to be fully focused on, especially as a romantic subplot between Kristen and local hunk Lorenzo (Giulio Corso) comes into play.
Instead, this serves up a range of promising options that are never fully explored. There’s a few Godfather references, but this never dips into full-blown mob parody; there’s no real passion behind the romance (or Kristen’s ruined marriage for that matter). Funny performances – Nomvete lifts the film every time she arrives, and Bianca’s bionic leg is a surreal note – don’t get enough focus, while the crime angle is kept as fodder for some throw away gags.
What this does have is a lot of Toni Collette having a fun time. That’s not something to be underestimated. Whether she’s swirling wine around a glass, being startled by yet another criminal activity, soaking up the sun in the countryside or watching some scumbag fall into an industrial wine-making machine, she always lights up the screen.
Mafia Mamma is a hundred-odd minutes spent with your new best friend; it’s just a shame the rest of the holiday didn’t pan out.
Mafia Mamma is in cinemas now.