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'Married to the Mob' (R)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
August 19, 1988

A mix of goofy ethnicity, romance and self-discovery, "Married to the Mob" is an offer you can't refuse. Director Jonathan Demme has nailed one with this playful, but dangerous, gangster farce -- as sure as one size fits all in concrete overshoes.

As sendups go, Demme's is Spaghettios to the primavera of the sardonic "Prizzi's Honor." Brightly colored and broadly played, this genre spoof mocks as it celebrates the underworld. It's all decked out in Godfather kitsch, but underneath its loud exterior, a complex heroine struggles for freedom.

Michelle Pfeiffer has the pivotal role of the movie and perhaps of her career as Angela De Marco, the unhappy missus of Frankie (The Cucumber). Shedding her WASP identity completely, Pfeiffer becomes the Italian princess, right down to the Longa Island accent. Angela is an updated suburban moll, a gum-popper with press-on nails and lots of sweaters applique'd with feathers. She looks like a caricature, but there's anguish under all that mascara.

"Everything we own, eat, wear, fell off a truck. Everything has blood on it," she says to Frankie (Alec Baldwin), who laughs and suggests a Valium when she pleads for a divorce. Sadly, Angela resigns herself to a life of crime, but fate intervenes. The Cucumber and his boss Tony's tomato are found dead in a cooling hot tub -- a gangland gazpacho that sets Angela free. At the wake, Tony (The Tiger) Russo (Dean Stockwell) forces his attention on Angela, who becomes all the more determined to escape the Family. To the FBI agent tailing Tony, suspected of the murders, the embrace also implicates Angela.

Matthew Modine is the overzealous G-man Mike Downey, who seems about as deep a thinker as Batman's Robin. His job is a game of hide and seek, and Mike is a master of disguise and intrigue. He's never what he seems -- and the inevitable price is that he trusts no one. But when he falls for his suspect, a` la Richard Dreyfuss in "Stakeout," it turns out he's licensed to love.

Tailed by Mike, Tony and Tony's jealous wife, Angela moves to a pitiful flat on the Lower East Side, puts her son in a P.S. and takes a job sweeping floors at the Hello Gorgeous beauty salon. She wants to go straight, but the Department of Justice, the don and the green-eyed monster stand in her way. Of these formidable obstacles, the most memorable is Mrs. Connie Russo (Mercedes Ruehl), who defends her marriage with the ferocity of Medea and the vocabulary of Eddie Murphy. This hilarious harridan is torn between blowing away either the competition or a little bit of Tony himself.

Photographed with the awe accorded temples, Ruehl's virago is majestic in her jealousy, stealing scenes but never the show from the sweetly determined Pfeiffer. A crass mouth and coarse hair color offset Pfeiffer's porcelain prettiness like lipstick on a teacup rim. But even with a bad permanent, she still is meltingly lovely.

This is her second movie marriage to the mob. As the wife in "Scarface," she was the Latino mobster's WASP ornament, cold, trapped and tragic. As the Cucumber's widow, she's a deft comedian instead. It's her movie, and she graces it.

It's easy to see why the idiosyncratic Demme, chronicler of postmodern Americana, was attracted to this offbeat social satire by Barry Strugatz and Mark R. Burns. The notion of a station wagon Mafia brings out the nimble farceur in Demme, not to mention the interior decorator. He's set the movie in fantasy locations, like the Fontainebleu bridal suite and the Chickin' Lickin' eatery. And Russo relaxes at a spaghetti restaurant with a Camelot decor and a piano bar. "Hey, it's Tony the Tiger, the paisano the sun always shines on-a," sings the tunesmith. There's also reggae, Italian pop and a musical score by David Byrne of Demme's documentary "Stop Making Sense."

It's a Demme movie family reunion of sorts. Cinematographer Tak Fujimoto, a regular collaborator, shoots for laughs, not graphic effect. The camera is like a quizzical character, circling to give the movie the giddy feel of a carrousel ride.

"Married to the Mob" improves on Demme's "Something Wild," a comedy that turned abruptly, graphically ugly. Here he's more assured, mixing moods from the outset. Inspired by the paradox of the Mafia, of family virtue and Murder Inc., he adds another classic to the growing library of Italian American favorites. Hold on to your kneecaps -- it's a Cosa Nostra "Moonstruck."

Copyright The Washington Post

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