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Review: In ‘Mafia Mamma,’ murder by stilettos and by cliche

At first, when suburban mom Kristin gets the mysterious call to head to Italy to settle the affairs of a dead relative, she protests she’s too busy.
This image released by Bleecker Street shows Toni Collette, left, and Giulio Corso in a scene from "Mafia Mamma." (Bleecker Street via AP)

At first, when suburban mom Kristin gets the mysterious call to head to Italy to settle the affairs of a dead relative, she protests she’s too busy. Then she realizes there’s not much keeping her: Her son is off to college, her job is dead-end, and her husband? He's cheating with the school guidance counselor.

So why not treat herself to a me-focused trip, a la Julia Roberts? Maybe an “Eat, Pray, Love” trip, muses Kristin (Toni Collette), to which her friend (Sophie Nomvete) replies that what she really needs, bluntly, is to “Eat, Pray, $%&$.”

Soon that’s the slogan for her trip. It also would a great alternative title for “Mafia Mamma,” if they could get away with it. And really, they try to get away with most everything else.

That includes some cringe-worthy slapstick, some Tarantino-level violence, and also every Italian stereotype you can imagine (Grape-stomping? Check. Gelato, gnocchi and cannoli? Check. Speaking of cannoli: “The Godfather?” Check. Stanley Tucci’s food show? Check!) Some of this is to be expected, but “Mafia Mamma,” directed by Catherine Hardwicke, is over-saturated with shtick. And in a script which seeks to empower its protagonist by having her don a tight dress and commit murder with a stiletto heel to the groin (and eyeball), the goriest death is by cliché. Nobody escapes it.

Not even the wonderfully versatile Collette, who does yeoman’s work selling the increasingly repetitive plot developments, especially in the latter half, and maintaining sympathy for her character, who's such a wide-eyed fish out of water, she’s never even seen “The Godfather” (a running joke, which like many jokes here is funny the first time).

The opening scenes are promising. We begin with always-welcome Monica Bellucci, as hardened consiglieri Bianca, surveying a crime scene full of dead bodies, including her boss Giuseppe Balbano, and declaring: “This is war.” Soon, Kristin gets Bianca's call about grandad, whom she never knew. Kristin grew up in America and always assumed grandad was a vintner (and Tony Soprano was in waste management...).

Soon Kristin arrives in Rome, ready to eat, pray and you-know-what. (After all, her husband’s you-know-whatting with the guidance counselor, who has one of the film’s funnier lines when she says, caught in the act: “I want you to know I’m a feminist!”) It seems like the you-know-what is about to happen quickly for Kristin too, because an impossibly handsome guy just happens to show up at the airport and take her number.

At the funeral, Kristin narrowly escapes death when the procession itself is attacked by the rival family (a cascade of oranges running down the cobblestoned street is a clever “Godfather” reference, until the joke gets tired). At the family home, she’s shown a video message designating her as the successor. She tries to flee, but Bianca tells her she can’t run from her destiny.

And so the film chronicles her making peace with that destiny, even if peace means severing a few eyeballs from their sockets along the way.

Not that Kristin becomes evil or anything. Most of her bad deeds are done by accident or in self-defense. But the worst deed of all is that the movie can’t decide what it wants her, or itself, to be. It’s not fully slapstick comedy — wine-stomping scenes aside — and hardly a serious crime saga.

Most of all, it seems to want to tell a story of female empowerment; at one point Kristin is reminded to never let a man dictate who she can be or what she can do. Nice message, but it’s muddled. Who exactly is dictating? Surely not her husband, a caricature of a doofus.

And so, despite some satisfying moments, by the increasingly cringe-worthy last third of the movie you’re just annoyed that it seems to want to cover all bases — to have its, er, cannoli and eat it, too. Maybe Kristin should just eat, pray, you-know-what, and head on home.

“Mafia Mamma,” a Bleecker Street release, has been rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America “for bloody violence, sexual content and language.” Running time: 101 minutes. Two stars out of four.


MPAA definition of R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.

Jocelyn Noveck, The Associated Press

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