Blu-ray Review: Rob the Mob (2014)

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Original Review:
(Published 4/9/14)

“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 clich├ęd 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.

Blu-ray Review:

A surprisingly buoyant, lively, and charming character-driven true crime comedy, Raymond De Felitta’s underrated sleeper Rob the Mob has been given a second chance to make a terrific first impression on film lovers that missed out on the indie earlier in the year thanks to its Blu-ray and DVD debut.

Though it scored well with reviewers and in the art-houses of bigger cities that carried the Millennium Entertainment film in its limited theatrical release and on-demand rollout, it’s sure to garner great word-of-mouth from those who give it a spin.

Despite the soundbite heavy critical praise adorning its cover that calls the picture "Bonnie and Clyde meets Goodfellas," Rob the Mob is its own unique work and deserves adoration on its own merits, much like those two true crime classics.

Furthermore, the best thing about De Felitta’s feature is that it doesn’t easily fit into any convenient labels. Wild and freewheeling, Rob is an actor’s movie and one that tries to capture to pulse of New York at a certain time and place.

To achieve this right off the bat, Rob opens with a sharply edited introduction set to “Groove is in the Heart,” which De Felitta admits on the director’s commentary track was the brainchild and handiwork of Steven Soderbergh who spliced together stock footage with the song (of the Traffic director’s own choosing) to immediately transport us to early ‘90s New York.

Shortly thereafter, we’re quickly launched into a seemingly spur-of-the-moment robbery before we know who the characters are and what’s going on. Moving from chaotic handheld cameras to show us the point-of-view of our hopped up bandits, the cinema verite style segues into a smoother cinematographic version of its realism-heavy approach to catch up with the recently reunited lovers before they venture into their second and final crime wave.

While my original review (above) cited a wish for more character background and information to establish their motives and help us get a better understanding of them, sure enough the razor sharp Blu-ray offers some extended and deleted scenes that go a long way to answering some of our questions.

Though intriguingly out-of-chronological order on the menu, the three segments are actually served up in the order of strongest to weakest, with two slightly lengthy new sequences and a shorter third one that gives us a glimpse into Rosie’s home life (featuring actress Aida Turturro as her mother).

While the home scene is way too gritty to have meshed well with the rest of the frenetic and funny film in emphasizing Cassavetes-like in-your-face verite (which may have made the characters harder to empathize with at first), the previous two extras are absolute gold.

Even though it’s safe to say that the first sequence might have strayed too far from the main narrative in offering viewers more of Arianda and Dunne’s hilarious chemistry, it’s yet another stellar reminder of the leading lady’s talent as well as Dunne’s often unexplored comedic range.

Likewise, although the second scene might have grinded the fast and furious pacing to a halt by showing us a more complete interview that the couple had with Romano’s character (and the witty jokes about marriage could have been cut to save time), it provides a stronger motive for Tommy’s actions.

And this is especially true when it’s viewed right after the first deleted scene in which Tommy shows Rosie an offscreen family photo and seems angered at her implication that he looks more like his mother than the man who’d inspired him to act in the form of his deceased father.

A fascinating collection of roughly 18 minutes of footage, the deleted material along with the director’s informative commentary track (which should be of particular interest to indie filmmakers) helps paint a much stronger picture of one of the freshest New York stories of the year so far.

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