Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Director's Spotlight #5.9: Jonathan Demme's Married to the Mob


In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director’s Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. March’s director is the perpetually underrated Jonathan Demme.

Grade: 90 (A-)

Following the critical (if not commercial) success of Something Wild, Jonathan Demme reestablished himself as a major narrative filmmaker with a distinct kooky touch, now with an added subversive edge. It was the definitive Demme film of the 1980s, an unpredictable, quirky, warm-hearted comedy that wasn’t afraid to get a little rough. The 1990s would see a shift towards more serious subjects in Demme’s work, but he had one more delightfully offbeat comedy in him: 1988’s Married to the Mob, which saw the director exploring his love for kitsch and the tackiest side of America to the nth degree.

Angela de Marco (Michelle Pfeiffer) is the wife of mob hitman “Cucumber” Frank de Marco (Alec Baldwin), but she hates the mob wife life and community and wants a better life for herself and her young son. When Frank’s boss Tony “The Tiger” Russo (Dean Stockwell in an Oscar-nominated role) discovers Frank has been sleeping with his mistress, he whacks him. Angela clashes with Tony, who lusts after her, and Tony’s pathologically jealous wife Connie (Mercedes Ruehl) before deciding to leave her rich New Jersey home for a more modest (read: horrid) New York apartment. But just when she thinks she’s out, she learns that Tony hasn’t given up on her, nor have Connie’s suspicions died down. To complicate matters further, she slowly starts to fall in love with Mike Downey (Matthew Modine)...the FBI agent sent to keep surveillance on Angela.

Married to the Mob announces its intentions early on with the opening credits: set to Rosemary Clooney’s rendition of “Mambo Italiano”, the credits appear in a wonderfully gaudy color-scheme while the sound of bullets punch through the main title. It’s the first in a series of offbeat touches Demme brings to the fore. Better still: the opening mob hit on a train, in which Baldwin and an associate sit behind their intended target, wait for the train to pass through a tunnel, and shoot him in the back of the head with a silenced pistol. They then exit the train and the dead man blends in with the other sleeping passengers. Married to the Mob doesn’t hide the violent mob lifestyle, but it doesn’t take the violence as seriously as Something Wild does (nor as seriously as John Huston’s pitch-black mob comedy Prizzi’s Honor from three years earlier). It’s a lighthearted mob pastiche in a category of its own. It’s like French New Wave gangster films like Breathless and Shoot the Piano Player (a longtime Demme influence) took a trip to late-80s America.

If there were ever a genre or time period more appropriate for Demme’s love of kitsch, it’s difficult to put a finger on it. Married to the Mob is awash in kooky production detail: the gaudy 80s hair salon filled with big-haired Jersey women, the resplendent mob homes, the lovers motel room (filled with Greek statues), the bizarre restaurant the mobsters meet in, the lousy apartment Angela takes up in, a tropical bar Angela and Mike woo in, the tacky burger joint Tony loves, and a grand finale in Miami’s brightest and most garish locations. Demme doesn’t skimp on costume details, either, from Tony’s super-suave getup to the goofiest Miami costumes this side of Scarface.

Demme and longtime cinematographer Tak Fujimoto truly outdo themselves here. Their typically fluid tracking shots explore every inch of every meticulously designed element of the film, from the salon (where the camera twirls as Angela is overwhelmed by the other mob wives’ phoniness) to Angela and Mike’s date at a Tropical Bar/dance club (where the swirling camera communicates the ecstasy of her new romance). Fujimoto and Demme also make good use of extreme close-ups to accentuate Connie’s frightening need to keep tabs on Tony and to bring out fear in the audience when the FBI raids Angela’s new workplace. These shots, combined with the use of first-person perspective shots (most notably as Frank or Tony come very close to Angela and talk down to her) are remarkably effective, and they would be central to the success of Demme’s next film, The Silence of the Lambs (slightly darker territory than Married to the Mob).

Demme brings his terrific understanding of how to use music in film as well. The aforementioned train-hit segues into the salon scene, and both scenes are wonderfully set to New Order’s “Bizarre Love Triangle” (appropriate, considering how many love triangles there are in this film). Demme fills the film with more 80s songs (including music by The Feelies, the Pixies, and a dreamy score by David Byrne), but he gets the most mileage out of his love for world music (reggae in the hair-salon Angela gets a job in, tropical dance in the club) and out of on-screen songs, including an acapella doo-wop group and a restaurant piano-man who plays the theme song “Tony the Tiger” whenever Tony enters the room (it’s even more wonderful than it sounds).

As with many Demme films, Married to the Mob features Demme’s two favorite central character types: Pfeiffer’s strong woman seeking reinvention and Modine’s quirky, moral young man. There’s no room for Angela to breathe or make her own decisions in the stifling world of Mob-run New Jersey- the life is dangerous, the hierarchy patriarchal (Baldwin laughs off her demand for a divorce), and the mob wives are crassly materialistic and judgmental. After her husband’s death and Tony’s relentless pursuit, Angela takes the opportunity to get her and her son out of the toxic environment and get a chance at a new life. They leave behind all illicitly obtained riches and move into a crappy new apartment. Sure, the place sucks, but it’s theirs, damn it, and they can makes something of it with an honest job. Pfeiffer excelled at playing empowered female characters in many films (Scarface, The Fabulous Baker Boys, Batman Returns) before she became the most exhausted-looking movie star this side of Harrison Ford. Nowhere are her strengths more perfectly applied than in Married to the Mob, a film which succeeds or fails by way of a lead actress who doesn’t condescend, play up the Jersey-isms, or lose her innate vulnerability without playing her as a victim. She’s an honest-to-goodness good person, and it’s impossible to not wish the best for her.

Less successful is Modine as eccentric FBI-agent Mike. The character, as written, has plenty of warmth (his guilt when he realizes Angela is truly innocent) combined with terrific offbeat touches (the unique way he puts on his suit), but Modine doesn’t quite make it. My cousin Loren Greenblatt (whose blog, g-blatt.blogspot.com, you should definitely check out) described his issue with Sacha Baron Cohen’s character in Hugo with this: “His character is supposed to be a little off, but his off-ness is a little off”. That’s Modine’s performance in a nutshell: he seems perfect for the part (he brought a unique lightness to Stanley Kubrick’s often pitch-black Full Metal Jacket), but his quirkiness seems a bit forced, and it’s often difficult to distinguish his awkwardness as “relationship with a new girl” awkward with “uncomfortable actor” awkward. Modine was reportedly depressed from the intense shooting of Full Metal Jacket and also admitted he didn’t initially think there was anything funny about the script. It shows, and he’s the one weak performance in an otherwise flawless cast. Perhaps Jeff Daniels or Kyle MacLachlan would have been better (though Daniels had already worked with Demme and MacLachlan would later do his own “eccentric agent” role in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks).

The two major supporting characters help make up for Modine’s anemic performance: Stockwell is at his creepily-suave best as Tony, a clearly dangerous man who nonetheless doesn’t seem totally irredeemable. There’s a certain ease to the performance that distinguishes him from other hardass mobsters. Particularly terrific is a scene where he accidentally bumps into Mike (unbeknownst to him an FBI agent) and apologizes; when Mike makes a rude comment, Tony can only quip “what a jerk…” with mild annoyance. Even better is Mercedes Ruehl as Tony’s terrifying wife. Other depictions of the mob have shown how marginalized women can become (Lorraine Bracco in Goodfellas, Edie Falco of The Sopranos), but Ruehl’s power and psychotic, aggressive love for her man terrifies even Tony, who dares not give her a reason to flip out (well, he tries). When Connie corners Angela in a supermarket with her shopping cart, the scene is filmed almost as if a hit were about to take place.

Married to the Mob doesn’t disappoint in scene-stealing (or at least shot-stealing) side characters either. The film is populated with Demme regulars (Charlies Napier as a hairdresser, Sister Carol as Angela’s boss) and other quirky actors of the time (Joan Cusack as one of the mob wives, Baldwin as the slick Frank, Oliver Platt as Modine’s partner). Demme even gets another chance to express his subtle “One World” view with Sister Carol’s warm, giving performance as the only character who gives Angela a break during her job hunt. She doesn’t just give her a job- she gives her a newer, more stylish haircut that helps Angela reinvent herself as an independent woman. It’s this bond that blurs the color line (as Demme so often does) without erasing the Jamaican singer/actress’ ethnicity.

While the film is a lighter take on the American Dream than some Demme films (Melvin and Howard, for one), there’s real malaise at the center of Angela’s plight. Here’s a woman who never got a break in her old life and never got comfortable in her constricting world. Now, she has a new chance, but even then she has to fight for her independence. Initially, Angela cannot find a job, and when it looks like she’s finally caught a break with a job at the Chicken Likkin’ restaurant, she notices the creepy manager peeping in on her. Even after she finds a new job and a new guy, she realizes that she’ll never be free of her old mob ties. It gets worse: against Mike’s wishes, the FBI pulls a sting on Angela, threatening to lock her up for giving away her former goods (all illegally obtained without her knowledge), put her son in a lousy orphanage, and deport her new boss back to Jamaica. She’s not responsible for any of the bad things that happened, but she’s getting screwed nonetheless. There’s a nice, knowing line after Angela compares the FBI to the mob: “the mob is a bunch of thieves and murderers. We work for the President of the United States”. That she feels betrayed by her new love interest only adds insult to injury.

SPOILERS IN THIS PARAGRAPH: But even though it all looks like it’s going to hell, and the final shootout, while humorous, has a real sense of danger, this is a comedy by way of Jonathan Demme, and everything turns out alright in the end. There’s a certain amount of relief for each of the major characters (even Tony), but emphasis is put on Angela and Mike’s relationship. Angela has found a new, more positive community (a Demme staple), and the only thing that could complete this is that “love conquers all” feel that Demme brings to his pictures.  Earlier in the film, after Mike realizes how good-natured Angela truly is, he notes that “Everybody deserves a second chance, especially someone like you.” As the film ends, Angela decides to forgive Mike: “everyone deserves a second chance….even you”. Sister Carol winks into the camera, “Bizarre Love Triangle” starts up again, and we know everything is going to be alright.

Married to the Mob is a comedy so wonderful that Demme couldn’t fit all the terrific moments he shot into the movie, so he includes a montage of outtakes as the end credits role. It serves as a perfect farewell to the quirky humanist Demme proved to be throughout the 80s. The director didn’t fully abandon that trait, but his next project, 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs, showed him dealing with more grave material.



Schedule for the rest of Demme month as follows:

3/22: The Silence of the Lambs
3/23: Philadelphia
3/24: Beloved
3/25: The Truth About Charlie, The Manchurian Candidate
3/27: Documentary Demme (Storefront Hickcock, The Agronomist, Heart of Gold, Man from the Plains)
3/28: Rachel Getting Married

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