On Blu-ray and DVD 6/24
“Did Gotti put you up to this?” It had to be a joke. No one would ever think of walking into an Italian American New York City social club and holding up the mob. Except in the early 1990s someone did the unthinkable and the only one laughing was the guy robbing the mob in the form of a twenty-something ex-con named Tommy Uva (Michael Pitt) who didn’t know John Gotti and most certainly wasn’t kidding around.
A young man who worked a day job as a collection’s agent with other ex-cons hoping for a second chance, Tommy was using his second chance to collect in a whole different way – from the very men that most people crossed the street to avoid.
Not content to spend his time trying to go legit while taking hard-earned money from people who couldn’t afford it, Tommy knew exactly what he was doing when he walked into one of several social clubs in a mind-blowing year-long spree.
In his eyes he was getting revenge – revenge on the type of guys who’d constantly humiliated his florist father growing up that Tommy believed led to his dad's premature death. The way Tommy saw it in an era where endless headlines and evening news coverage all focused on the trial of so-called Teflon Don aka Mr. John Gotti, these guys who’d been getting away for murder for decades were all past due and who better than him to collect?
Learning in the open court testimony of Gotti’s former underboss Sammy the Bull Gravano that none of the Made men holed up in New York City's Italian social clubs to play cards even bothered to carry a weapon (but something tells me that’s changed now), Tommy decides to settle old debts... with interest.
And interest is exactly what he receives from all sides, which Two Family House and City Island filmmaker Raymond De Felitta captures in this briskly paced, high-energy cinematic portrait that takes us with him on the crazy scheme from its unbelievable start to its inevitable conclusion.
Yet far from only focusing on Tommy, De Felitta recreates the incredulous reaction from all involved whether it’s the news media that dubs Tommy and his lady love/getaway driver Rosie (Nina Arianda) Bonnie and Clyde or the the F.B.I. agents staking out the very clubs he’s holding up that can barely believe their ears or eyes.
Spinning traditional robbery picture paradigms off their axis, De Felitta paints the wise guys that would ordinarily be placed in the role of the aggressors in a far more vulnerable light when they realize that in addition to money, jewelry and lost pride, Tommy has nabbed more than he bargained for in his latest heist.
Though he’d only gotten away with five dollars, nothing prepared Tommy for the discovery of what was hidden away in an elder mobster’s wallet that is not only worth its weight in gold but almost guarantees his future demise.
Returning to the apartment he shares with Rosie, the lovebirds are shocked as they unfold a well-worn sheet of paper, only to realize that in their hands they hold the official contact information including rank, address, full name and aliases for the entire mafia “family tree.”
Figuring the best way to stay alive is to play all sides, Rosie and Tommy begin phoning numerous individuals both on the list and off including a long time mob journalist (nicely played against type by Ray Romano).
And by casting the infinitely likable Andy Garcia as the unofficial head of a crime family who works a day job as a shop owner (not unlike Tommy’s deceased father), De Felitta and screenwriter Jonathan Fernandez add a welcome layer of humanism to what could’ve otherwise been a clichéd role.
In addition to making us question our antihero, Fernandez invites us to draw parallels between Garcia’s character’s relationship with his son to our lead as well given his reluctance to take out Tommy since, as he phrases it, “eagles don’t kill flies.”
An effective ensemble piece, Rob the Mob fits in nicely with the filmmaker’s impressive oeuvre thus far, which first caught my attention with the underrated crowd-pleasing Sundance hit Two Family House that I loved so much I chose to screen it in a film discussion series I hosted in Scottsdale.
While he's continued to make solid films, Rob the Mob is easily De Felitta’s strongest effort since House. A frenetic, fiercely funny yet jaw-droppingly bold true crime tale about two crazy in love kids who make one in a series of crazy decisions from which there’s no turning back, at its core, Mob’s driving force is love and family, which makes it a natural progression from the helmer, given his earlier offerings.
Admittedly, you wish you knew more about the duo or more specifically just what exactly they were thinking as the film isn’t sure exactly what to make of them either. Namely we go from questioning their sanity to admiring their intellect before wondering if they were that oblivious to the danger they were putting themselves in or if they had some kind of Romeo and Juliet meets Bonnie and Clyde like death wish. Yet what the film lacks in concrete answers it makes up for in admirable cinematic realism – easily transporting us back in time to the early ‘90s.
Anchored by the mesmerizing turns from its two stars, while Pitt (who managed to steal Boardwalk Empire away from everyone else) is always compulsively watchable, the real story in Rob the Mob is in De Felitta’s casting of the pitch perfect Tony award-winning actress Nina Arianda as his beloved Rosie.
Radiating off-the-charts charisma, Arianda is a real discovery and although she’s worked in film before, this performance is tailor-made to take her to the next level, reminding me again of the way that Two Family House helped launch the lovely Kelly Macdonald.
Whether she’s assembling an Uzi or impressing her new boss (a hilarious Griffin Dunne), Arianda instantly captivates viewers in a star-making role on par with Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny or Rosie Perez in White Man Can’t Jump.
Returning to the same theme that drove House's characters in celebrating a person’s desire to follow their dream (regardless of how risky it might be), in the end, Rob the Mob has a better emotional payoff than it does a concrete narrative one since the beautifully lensed yet nonetheless inevitably devastating final scene cuts into the plotline rather abruptly.
Of course, by echoing the same impulsive, anything-can-happen Cassavetes-esque spirit established early on, Rob the Mob reminds us that it wasn't designed to play by the traditional rules of three-act screenwriting. And as such, you may feel slightly unsettled by the way the rollercoaster ride of the film stops quite suddenly at the top of the hill.
However, by deciding not to put some kind of final statement on the work or abandoning the truth to explore the point-of-view of a supporting player, De Felitta’s ending is that much more reflective of the way that real life can take you by surprise… much like it did for the New York wiseguys who expected a practical joke but got Tommy Uva instead.
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