JANE AUSTEN'S MAFIA: Blu-ray (Touchstone, 1998) Kino Lorber
A spirited, intermittently clever burlesque of just about every mafia movie known to man – as well as a wicked jab at such iconic cornerstones of American cinema - Jaws, The English Patient, Jurassic Park and Forrest Gump - Jim Abrahams’ Jane Austen’s Mafia (1998) spins its goofy yarn about ‘disorganized’ crime with all the poise of a puffed up Saturday Night Live skit, infrequently outstaying its welcome, although, on the whole, retaining its ‘feel good’ with a few circuitous dry spots factored in. The Abrahams, Greg Norberg, Michael McManus screenplay is an unprepossessing claptrap whose homage to The Godfather Parts One and Two is so transparent it proves strangely salvageable. A hare-brained comedy can still be good, and occasionally Mafia is very good indeed, mixing timely social commentary (“If you prick a murderer does he not leave a bloody trail to his Rockingham Estate?”) with the anticipated primitiveness of a John Landis comedy. Example: given the name Pepper Giannini and innocently asked, “Any Sicilian in you?” the glamazonian sexpot played by Pamela Gidley glibly replies, “Not since last night.”
Abrahams, who began his career co-authoring 1977’s Kentucky Fried Movie (with the Zucker brothers, Jerry and David), leading to even bigger big screen farces like Airplane (1980) and The Naked Gun (1988), gets a lot of mileage from the traditions and trappings of the mob movie turned askew. And yet, the atmosphere is more unevenly puerile than salaciously stupid. With this ‘kind’ of movie there is no half-way, and, on more than one occasion Mafia just seems to be going through the motions. Given the crassness in the exercise, Mafia seems a very strange bedfellow for the Walt Disney Co., even as it was distributed under their Touchstone banner. But Mafia had the unfortunate circumstance then to be released in theaters on the heels of There’s Something About Mary; a runaway smash hit, taking vulgarity into the absurd.
Personally, I have never found ‘Mary’ very funny. The navel-gazing humor is rougher; the gags, fairly crude (using Ben Stiller’s newly ejaculated seminal fluids as ‘hair gel’ or peering through binoculars at a pair of sun-scorched and very saggy breasts isn’t exactly my idea of comedy). Of the proverbial ‘kick in the crotch’ ilk, There’s Something About Mary is in very poor taste, elevating even the likes of Animal House (1978) to high art by direct comparison…but I digress). Mafia does not transgress nearly as far into obscenity for its laughs, and perhaps this is the reason why some critics of their day suggested Abrahams had stiffed his audience on the laughs, mid-chortle, serving up an ‘oddly repressed’ smorgasbord of silliness. Personally, I cannot fault the guy for trying to keep the ribald from going ripe. ‘Gross out’ humor is not what Mafia is about. Okay, maybe the cemetery ‘puke’ scene that has every mafia chieftain upchucking multicolored clear fluids after witnessing the arrival of one of their own as a ‘burn victim’. But even this is kept relatively light-hearted.
Perhaps, Mafia was simply the unwitting victim of arriving too late in the cycle of browbeaten comedy send-ups to various other genres, turned asunder in their time-honored principles for the sake of a good/bad laugh. Tamer than a National Lampoon movie, its ballsy badinage never goes for the jugular or the crotch. Bravo! Nevertheless, its parody can still give both areas a titillating massage. Jay Mohr stars as Anthony Cortino; a would-be mafia chieftain who inherits a crime syndicate after his father, Don Vincenzo Armani Windbreaker Cortino (played by Jason Fuchs as a precocious accident-prone boy back in Italy and Lloyd Bridges as an as bumbling old bugger living in America) – sometimes referred to as Don Cortisone – is shot 47 times by an assassin disguised as a priest (Richard Abrahams) during his son Joey’s (Billy Burke) wedding to “some Italian girl”. The Don survives, only to be offed by his pint-sized nephew, ‘Chucky’ (one of the film’s less successful homages; this one to the 1988 horror cult classic - Child’s Play).
Anthony is in love with Diane Steen (Christina Applegate); a doe-eyed whimsical idealist who fears she will always be “just a Protestant chick who never killed anybody” if she marries into the Cortino clan. After the opening credits illustrate Anthony being blown up in his car (a complete rip-off of Martin Scorsese’s Casino, 1995, with its only distinction being Mohr’s flailing buffoon does some cheerleading with a pair of pom-poms and also completes a slam dunk into a basketball hoop as he sails through the flames) we regress to the 1930s and the Italian province of Salmonella. Here, the local peasantry is preparing for the Festival of the Olives, complete with nuns juggling genoa salami, a Pope on stilts and Miss Pimento; their resident beauty queen, riding atop a float with Jeopardy game show host, Alex Trebek as its Master of Ceremonies (I confess, this last in-joke utterly escapes me). Young Vincenzo offers to take a large package for his father, a Sicilian postman named Luigi (Anthony Crivello), to the lavish estate of Don Ruffo (Stefan Lysenko).
Ruffo is in the middle of a passionate seduction when the boy arrives. He is displeased by the intrusion but becomes thoroughly enraged when Vincenzo drops the parcel, revealing it contains cocaine. Ruffo releases his ‘guard sheep’ who take one sniff of the white powder and become as docile as…well…sheep. Ruffo then tries to shoot Vincenzo with his shotgun, only to snap off his own thumb and use it as a bullet instead. Vincenzo gets away but is discovered with his family at the Olive Festival. Attempting to shield his boy, Luigi is fatally shot, falling off the wagon – literally - while Vincenzo’s mother (Sofia Milos) blames his collapse on alcoholism; “Twelve step program, my ass!” Several villagers conceal Vincenzo inside the anal cavity of a donkey. He is taken to the docks, presumably to become just another migrant stowaway aboard the steamer, Il Pacino. Get it? Instead, Vincenzo trips, becomes entangled in a fishnet and falls overboard, swimming the length of the journey to Ellis Island where he is identified by an immigration officer by the Armani windbreaker he is wearing. Vincenzo briefly meets Jenny (Allyson Call) – another newly landed immigrant. After sparing her from a confrontation with a hoodlum, the two share a moonlit ‘wish upon a star’; Vincenzo’s unspoken desire instantly fulfilled as Jenny’s cleavage exponentially inflates to reveal a set of very perky nipples.
Flash forward to brother Joey’s wedding. Anthony introduces Diane to the family. She’s polite and plucky, but decks Joey in the chops by accident. Joey is psychotic – a condition amplified when he becomes hooked on cocaine supplied by rival, Don Gorgoni (Vincent Pastore). Gorgoni offers the aged Vincenzo a ground level ‘piece of the action’, denied when Vincenzo mistakes the cocaine as non-dairy creamer. After Vincenzo is riddled in bullets, Anthony beats sprinter Flo-Jo to his father’s side. Diane and Anthony part over his intent to murder Gorgoni as revenge for his father. Meanwhile, Las Vegas’ Don Cesar Marzoni (Tony Lo Bianco) helps Anthony hide out, making him the manager of The Peppermill – a posh casino and resort. But he also sets Anthony up by introducing him to the femme fatale, Pepper Giannini (Pamela Gidley). Pepper and Anthony quickly become lovers and later wed. Anthony brings Joey into the Peppermill as thug muscle. But the psycho is so ramped up on cocaine he cannot even accurately assess who is cheating the house at poker, anesthetizing virtually everyone except the culprit – including all the dealers and cocktail waitresses - with an electric cattle prod at Anthony’s behest. Worse for everyone, Joey – who is exceptionally well-endowed - has begun an affair with Pepper. When Anthony discovers them in mid-flagrante delicto he is livid. Attempting to shore up their fractured fraternal relations, Joey turns to confront his brother, accidentally knocking over a very expensive vase across the room with his still erect penis.
Afterward, Joey and Pepper plot to rid themselves of Anthony by planting a bomb in his car. Don Vincenzo Cortino dies after being sprayed with some DDT by Chucky. However, Anthony has survived his assassination attempt, returning for his father’s funeral horrifically disfigured. His grey-skinned cadaver-like appearance repulses the attendees and priest who take their turn spewing projectile vomit on the casket (The Exorcist, anyone?). Anthony decides to take his revenge on all those who have challenged ‘the family.’ He sends his mother (now played by a humpbacked Olympia Dukakis) to the Peppermill. She devours a bunch of broccoli and prune juice before turning her Spanks toward a lit candle in Pepper’s suite, thereby blowing up her daughter-in-law. Anthony also has a special parcel sent to Joey’s home from ‘Steven’s Pet Shop’ (a spoof on Jurassic Park, with baby velociraptors emerging from the package to tear apart Chucky). Joey is exiled to Fargo where he establishes a male fertility clinic. Finally, Anthony sends Fatso Paulie Orsatti (Paul Hammond) to impersonate Michael Flatley during a Vegas-styled River Dance revue, decapitating Don Marzoni, who is in the audience, by kicking his head off with his steel-toed tap shoe.
Anthony, who has miraculously recovered from his wounds (all but a Band-Aid on his chin), now pursues Diane, since become the President of the United States. Predictably, she is within arm’s reach of achieving world peace. Alas, Diane forgoes this monumental achievement to marry Anthony instead, particularly after discovering that – in her absence?!? – she has become a mother (don’t ask…just run with it). Anthony introduces Diane to her son (also named Diane and played by T.J. Cannata). After their wedding, Diane is outraged to learn in the press of the mafia hits her newlywed hubby carried out right under her nose. Yet, a simple denial from Anthony is all that is required to reset her disgust. The film ends with a minor character, Nick Molinaro, masquerading as an Eskimo. He harpoons Barney – the loveable children’s dinosaur; an act later to earn a hallowed shrine in Washington, annually visited by 34 million grateful parents annually.
Jane Austen’s Mafia has its moments. That said, a goodly number of its sight gags turn rancid or become moderately lame to downright idiotic - a regurgitation of stuff we have already seen elsewhere. Throwing obstacles of predigested lowbrow fluff at the screen, hoping some of it will stick (…and occasionally, it does), only serves to remind just how little there is to appreciate beyond the diluted silliness. The parody is anemic; the spoof, evaporated fizz; the humor, not nearly as gut-busting as repetitively mind-numbing. There is no plot here – so, the yuk-yuks have to sustain. Sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t. The characters are cardboard cutouts at best. So, it is saying much of Jay Mohr and Billy Burke, each strike an indelible chord. Burke’s is the more underrated performance, Mohr playing cagey and cool off Burke’s unapologetic ‘in your face’ mania. It is a genuine pity more was not written in for these two adversarial offspring to interact as feuding brothers on the cusp of a crying gag. They clearly possess enough bro-mantic chemistry to fuel the fun.
But no, we get Lloyd Bridges – a lot of him…too much, in fact, as the ditzy Don, so far gone he smokes the tail of his own cat and makes a few embarrassingly blue remarks about his new daughter-in-law, played by Marisol Nichols (“breasts as ripe as melons and an ass you can play canasta on”). Bridges, who died before the picture’s release and rates a tribute title card at the end of Mafia, is not adept at comedy. Ironically, on this outing, neither is Christina Applegate, who made her bones in the genre on TV’s Married with Children (1986-97). On the flipside, Olympia Dukakis – a very funny lady – is utterly wasted as the Don’s embittered, humped-back mama, Sophia. Why no one thought to write some apocryphal screwball tidbits for her, other than a thoroughly lame ‘fart joke’, is beyond me. Mafia’s creative misfires do not entirely sink the movie. But they do thin its potency from a lacquer of laughter into a runny mess – more mirth than merriment.
Mafia was originally released to Blu-ray in 2010 by Mill Creek Entertainment as part of a double bill with 2000’s The Crew – an even more ineffectual, if slightly more adult, ‘mafia-themed’ comedy. Mill Creek’s modus operandi for these ‘double feature’ discs was rather disappointing; concentrating all efforts on two movies compressed onto one single-sided disc: one sporting a stellar remastering effort (afforded The Crew herein), the other merely tacked on for good measure in a less than adequate 1080p transfer. I am still trying to figure out the executive mindset responsible for that decision. Then, Mafia looked pretty wan and woeful, indeed; with faded colors, weaker than anticipated contrast, and, some glaring age-related artifacts.
Better news ahead. Well, Mafia’s reissue via Kino Lorber rectifies virtually all these sins. What we have here is a completely remastered 1080p transfer. It looks marvelous. Colors are vibrant. Flesh tones that appeared piggy pink on the previous release now take on renewed accuracy. Fine detail is perfectly realized. The image is crisp without any evidence of untoward DNR and/or edge effects. Contrast is ‘bang on’ perfect, and there are no age-related artifacts to distract. Mafia’s DTS 5.1 audio sounds wonderful too. Better still, we get an audio commentary from director, Jim Abrahams and co-writers/co-producers, Greg Norberg and Michael McManus, plus theatrical trailers for other newly released Kino Lorber product. Now, if we could only convince Kino to get Disney Inc. to loan them the rights to other Touchstone product still MIA on home video in quality hi-def transfers: I Love Trouble (1994), The Doctor (1991), Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986), and Hello Again (1987) for starters. Here’s to hoping. Bottom line: recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)