' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Married to the Mob (1988)

Friday, August 09, 2013

Friday's Old Fashioned: Married to the Mob (1988)

As has been espoused several times by several notable filmmaking names in recent months, the movie industry is teetering on a dangerous precipice not unlike (in a manner of speaking) America’s ongoing class crisis. Hollywood, in all its infinite wisdom, has become over-reliant on a business model consisting of blockbusters and tentpoles, spending well into the hundreds of millions, hoping to strike oil. And while the past couple months already seem to be cultivating a place in moviegoing folklore as The Summer Of The Stinkbomb, there is no foreseeable change in sight. I shudder to think how much this forthcoming film featuring a Batman and a Superman will cost.

This is not to claim there are not quality films being made. Anyone who does make that claim is simply not paying attention, but those quality films are becoming smaller and smaller and more niche driven. Each film appeals to a specific demographic and, thus, it becomes that much more difficult for the majority of moviegoers - hardcore, general and not-that-often - to find a product on which they can all agree. In other words, cinema's middle class is dying.

With all of this at least sort of on my mind, I sat down to watch director Jonathan Demme's 1988 comedy "Married to the Mob." Simply put, I have no idea how this film would get made today. None. It cost $10 million to produce then which would likely equate out to roughly $20 million now, but probably more, and no major studio of this day and age would dare take a gamble on a movie that so nimbly and courageously maintains its treacherous footing on that rocky ground of comedy/pathos.

On the surface this is fairly big and broad movie. It’s big like the costuming of the Real Mafia Housewives and broad like the names of the husbands of those housewives – Tony “the Tiger”, Frank “the Cucumber”. But rippling below all the wacky humor, and tucked beneath her behemothic 80’s do, Michelle Pfeiffer improbably emerges as the very genuine heartbeat of this whole affair. This is a wily, honest and affecting performance.

Her Angela Demarco seems discontent with her philandering husband, “the Cucumber” (Alec Baldwin), and her life in general. Thus, she catches a break when her husband gets himself shot and killed. This is on account of his cheating with the girl his boss Tony “the Tiger” (Dean Stockwell) uses to cheat on his wife.

So Angela moves herself and her son to a crummy apartment in New York City and takes work at a beauty salon, eager for the American Dream of the Second Chance. Ah, but the past of a Real Mafia Housewife does not simply evaporate within the walls of a decidedly shabby tenement building. Tony “the Tiger’s” got the hots for Angela, see, and comes calling. She rebuffs him but this doesn’t stop Tony’s supremely paranoid spouse Connie (Mercedes Ruehl, perfectly operatic) from suspecting marital hijinks are afoot. This leads to a non-existent love triangle that, more or less, determines each of their fates.

That last detail is one of my favorites in a film chock full of little details I quite liked. Tony is due a comeuppance, of course, and so often comeuppances are entirely arbitrary and not born of the film’s own fabric. But Tony keeps disrespecting his spouse which is what breeds her paranoia which is what causes her to do him in.

Also crucial to his eventual comeuppance is the obligatory FBI agent on his trail. He is Mike Downey, who employs the woefully (wonderfully) unclever undercover name Mike Smith, played by Matthew Modine in a politely kooky performance that evokes a less self-impressed Inspector Closeau – specifically in his constant employment of ridiculous disguises. Naturally in keeping tabs on Angela Demarco they become entangled and feel a mutual flicker of love, and that is where the film really usurps your expectations.

We assume he won’t tell her he’s an FBI agent, because that’s how it works, and then at the worst possible moment his identity will be revealed by some bit of magical happenstance, because that’s how it works, except that’s not how it works. Angela and Mike have one night together and then his identity is revealed and then she’s ticked off at him and then she’s pulled into the case. At that point I just wanted to hug the movie and exclaim: “Honesty. Thank you.”

“Married to the Mob” is a movie that might be labeled middlebrow but that sort of terminology belittles Pfeiffer's splendid achievement. It is a difficult task to not simply play straight drama or zany comedy and instead settle in the middle ground, fusing impeccably with the material through its every twist and turn. Re-examining the Best Actress Oscar race that year reveals a fairly stacked field – Jodie Foster in “The Accused” (she won) and Glenn Close in “Dangerous Liaisons” and Meryl Streep in “A Cry In the Dark” and Melanie Griffith in “Working Girl” and Sigourney Weaver as Diane Fossey. Nevertheless…

If I’d been there I would have argued passionately for Michelle Pfeiffer’s inclusion. I kind of loved her.


Anonymous said...

This is the role that temporarily redefined Pfeiffer's icy mystique, before she refined it and thawed it just so, entering the pantheon with The Fabulous Baker Boys just a year later. Angela De Marco is one of a handful of La Pfeiffer's inarguably great performances and she's one of the most enduring film characters of the 1980s, too. Michelle Pfeiffer never won many trophies but damn did she ever excel, but it's all in the timing isn't it?

Jodie Foster was a ferocious Oscar contender giving a purposefully offputting star turn and no one was yet ready to take La Pfeiffer's craft seriously... the absurd beauty was still very much in the way. It was never going to happen for her as Angela De Marco or Susie Diamond, but I've never forgotten or gotten over either of them.

Nick Prigge said...

You're right. There is no way it was going to happen for her in either of those roles. Those are just the sort of roles that don't get recognized, not even today. So it goes.

When I was at the theater last night I noticed a poster for a new movie with Robert DeNiro and......Pfeiffer. I don't know. That poster didn't look too promising. Even so, I smiled.