Married to the Mob
With The Silence of the Lambs, Jonathan Demme became a bona-fide mainstream director, and I don’t think it really suited him. Apparently, he’d been courting Tom Cruise for Married to the Mob, so I guess he was gradually shifting towards “Hollywood player” territory anyway, but I can’t imagine the picture being nearly as loose and fun as it is with the then biggest star in the world attached. Because Married to the Mob is shambolic and freewheeling, disinterested in anything you’d call classically Hollywood, even by comedy standards. And its enormously, infectiously uplifting.
Angela: God, you people work just like the mob! There’s no difference.
Regional Director Franklin: Oh, there’s a big difference, Mrs De Marco. The mob is run by murdering, thieving, lying, cheating psychopaths. We work for the President of the United States of America.
There has been no shortage of mob comedies over the years, but it’s a genre that has proven surprisingly difficult to get right, the limp offerings (Wise Guys, My Blue Heaven, The Whole Nine Yards) more common than the successes (Get Shorty, and, yes really, Oscar and Mickey Blue Eyes). Married to the Mob was generally liked, but suffered from comparisons to Demme’s previous critical darling Something Wild, celebrated as a sharp zeitgeisty piece.
Geoff Andrew in Time Out labelled it “relentlessly shallow“, when he might have been better to compliment it for how light and breezy it is (he did admit to its “fizzy vitality“). Markus Natten in Film Year Book Vol 8 judged it insubstantial by comparing it to movies it had no desire to equal tonally (Into the Night, After Hours, and yes, Something Wild). In the same volume, James Park also brought up the spectre of Wild and pronounced “the film ends in gimmickry and jokiness where the previous picture culminated in violent passion“.
Those observations are accurate, but again, it seems unfair to slight a film for intentionally operating differently in the genre. Married to the Mob is blessed with bubble-gum brio; it doesn’t want to hit you for six the way Wild does when it takes a resounding left turn into the psychotic. Sometimes, it’s enough that a movie simply puts you in a good mood.
As is the common thread of the mob comedy, this one finds its protagonist attempting to leave the life behind, yet beset by impediments preventing her from doing so. Angela de Marco (Michelle Pfeiffer) gets out with her young son, after her husband, Frank “The Cucumber” de Marco (Alec Baldwin) is iced, unbeknownst to her, by Dean Stockwell’s Tony “The Tiger” Russo; he caught Frank bedding his mistress (Nancy Travis). But Tony has unreciprocated designs on Angela, and Tony’s wife Connie (Mercedes Ruehl) can smell that something is up. The FBI, meanwhile, in the form of Agents Mike Downey (Matthew Modine) and Ed Benitez (Oliver Platt), think Angela might have been in on the hit, so put her under surveillance.
The key to a picture like this is the casting, and Demme doesn’t put a foot wrong. The Cruise factor (he demanded six rewrites, then went off and made Cocktail instead) would have resulted in something very different (Knight and Day comes to mind), and while Jessica Lange was considered, Pfeiffer brings a particular vulnerability beneath Angela’s Brooklyn brass that allows the picture to work on an emotional level.
Everyone else here is playing broad, but Pfeiffer knows there needs to be a grounding element at the centre, if you’re going to buy into the romance or care about Angela rebuilding her life; she moves into a tatty hovel with a bath in the middle of the kitchen and finds a job at Rita’s (Sister Carol) hair salon (Hello Gorgeous). Not that Pfeiffer isn’t funny in the picture (and adorable, particularly in a Sergeant Pepper jacket, one she ends up wearing after an interview with Tracey Walter’s peeping tom Chicken Lickin’ manager), but she’s mostly the straight man (she sets up “I can’t remember the last time a man touched me below the waist“, but Modine’s reaction gets the laugh).
Connie: Whose husband are you, dog face?
Mike: I don’t know, whose husband are you looking for?
Modine took the Cruise role (he’d be second banana, or fourth or fifth banana, again a few years later with Cutthroat Island). He reputedly didn’t think there was anything funny about the script at first. He was in a funk for most of the shoot, post Full Metal Jacket, so it’s ironic that he gives possibly the funniest performance in the picture, relentlessly upbeat and goofily charming, whether it’s climbing onto the roof of a bus, not missing a beat when Connie bursts in on him and Angela (above), or showing a complete lack of respect towards Tony (“Yeah, a regular menace to society“; this line is later repeated to great effect in a rollcall succession of “disguises”, including janitor, flight captain and Hawaiian t-shirt holiday gear, as Tony realises who Mike actually is, culminating in the image of him as a police officer with truncheon).
Nick: Tony, meet Mike Smith, a lonely guy from Dubuque. A great guy. A one-man party in search of the right crowd.
One of Modine’s best moments is palling around as a “guest” of Tony’s heavies, just before the grand climax. When it occurs, Mike’s full of bravado (“You’re all under arrest. If you’ve got about fourteen hours, I’ll read you the charges“), despite being on the backfoot. The subsequent shootout includes an unexpected moment of pathos; on hitting Nick “The Snake” (Frank Gio), the latter goes down protesting “Gee, Mike, you didn’t have to do that“. Most vitaly, Modine and Pfeiffer have an easy chemistry that ensures you want them to make nice at the end. Strangely, after Full Metal Jacket and this, Modine has rarely been tapped for his wittier side, which is a loss.
Frank: I loved you like a father.
Tony: You disappointed the shit out of me.
Then there’s Dean Stockwell, who stayed in character for most of the shoot, even off the set (he would show up in restaurants acting the Tiger). He’d had a variable few years, even quitting acting to sell real estate in 1983 (although, to look at his CV, you wouldn’t be able to discern any significant gaps). However, his relationship with David Lynch had just reaped dividends in a widely-lauded Blue Velvet cameo (I wonder if Lynch saw Mob, as the coffin scene with Leland Palmer feels like a direct lift). The upturn would be cemented by Quantum Leap‘s arrival in 1989.
Tony is dangerous and charming, sleazy and stylish. He indulges the terrible pianist’s introduction (“Tony the phoney baloney it’s Tony the Tiger“) because it’s worshipful and respectful. He doesn’t need to be a big guy, because diminutive as he is, he’s believably intimidating (cue Joe Pesci). But he’s also very funny.
His “Rub-a-dub-dub” when Frank arrives, socked and feeling extra dirty, is a hoot, but his personal highlight is the shootout set piece at Burger World, during which he is attacked by an unknown rival gang, including Chris Isaak wearing a distinctive outfit. Asked what happened by his stooges, he retorts with the classic line “Some clown just tried to kill me!” (there can be no prizes for guessing the line came first, Isaak in clown costume second).
Connie: Tony, if I’d have found you hitting that broad, I’d have hunted you down like an animal. It would have been slow and painful. You would have begged me for mercy, baby.
Formidable as Frank is, however, and running thematically with Demme making what is essentially a women’s picture, the only thing he’s frightened of is his wife. So much so that his nightmare emasculation at the climax (“Kiss it goodbye!“) finds him relieved to be banged up, rather than outside and subject to Connie’s mood swings (such is the nature of the picture, even the mob boss gets a happy ending).
Ruehl is simply unstoppable in Mob, a vision of big hair and hideous fashion sense, and an unstoppable one-woman ballbreaker (Angela eventually does stop her, but it’s an unnecessary acquiescence to convention). Her unhinged confrontation with Angela in a supermarket, crushing cartons of eggs in her hands as she gives voice to her intentions (“If ever I catch you two together…“) is marvellous to behold, and she can’t deliver a line without it being as beefed-up, brawny and brash as fits only a mob wife (“That bitch. She thinks her shit don’t stink“).
Mike: Maybe Frank was indiscreet. They didn’t call him the cucumber for nothing.
There are numerous other notables here, likely with much more to do in the initial cut since you can see numerous deleted scenes over the end credits that failed to make it. Alas, without a soundtrack. I don’t know if they ever saw the light of day on DVD, but someone should make it so.
Not least is Baldwin, making the most of Frank de Marco; his single scene with Angela is all you need to register their complete disconnect. He wants her to schmooze with other wives, so as to get ahead. She wants to get out as “Everything is blood money“. His response (“I don’t have to listen to this garbage!“) is an alarmingly effective turn on a pin, not only announcing an explosive capacity for violence (he’s laughing again a moment later), but also establishing her mistake in trying to talk to him like he’s a considerate, understanding husband, rather than a psychopathic killer.
Baldwin was right on the cusp here, the downside to his graduation to leading man status with The Hunt for Red October being that his string of supporting turns in this Beetlejuice, Working Girl, Talk Radio and Great Balls of Fire! were much more interesting than most of his ’90s work.
Also showing up: Charles Napier, of course, in possibly his unlikeliest Demme role as Angela’s hair stylist (how upset is he at the thought she mightn’t like her terrible big do), Joan Cusack as one of the wives, Al Lewis as Uncle Joe Russo and Oliver Platt in his movie debut. His Platt supporting schtick is fully formed (he’d also appear in Working Girl that year) and particularly winning is his look of concentration as he attempts to follow Mike telling Joey about where humans would lie in relation to dinosaurs, if the 24-hour clock represented the history of the Earth.
Like Something Wild, the soundtrack is intrinsic to Married to the Mob‘s success, from the introduction with Rosemary Clooney singing Mambo Italiano segueing into New Order’s Bizarre Love Triangle, to the great score interludes courtesy of David Byrne. It’s nothing if not eclectic.
Kitsch comes up a lot in describing the movie, which it certainly is in respect of the mob tastes. But it also paints an idealised, inclusive multi-cultural vision of ’80s urban communities (or as Natten put it “uncategorisable homages to ethnicity, blue-collar immigrant kitsch“). Demme said of the Married to the Mob, “It’s an escapist film, not a film about organised crime“, and sure, it may be too frivolous for some, but even as a frivolous movie it carries a message that’s both appealing (“Let yourself off the hook. Everyone deserves a second chance“) and structurally neat (where it’s Mike telling her this the first time, it’s Angela who decides the second, after giving him a particularly frenzied shampoo).
Demme was largely lost to big Hollywood movies after this, and despite a couple of contenders for that looser, more improvised style in his last few years (Rachel Getting Married, Ricki and the Flash), this is probably the last time you could revel in something from him that’s unapologetically upbeat.