Toni Collette in "Mafia Mamma" (2023)
Step aside, Michael Corleone. A new mafia boss is in town. In Catherine Hardwicke’s slapstick comedy “Mafia Mamma,” mild-mannered mom Kristin (Toni Collette) unexpectedly inherits her grandfather’s mafia empire and reluctantly takes on responsibility as new leader of the Balbano family business. Guided by the family’s advisor Bianca (Monica Bellucci), Kristin defies expectations and climbs up the mafia hierarchy. This story of succession is exaggerated into one of silliness. Each scene has a lighthearted tone, and moments of attempted heartfelt emotion are brushed aside in favor of maintaining aloofness. “Mafia Mamma” aims to entertain, and succeeds goofily in doing so, but the parting note it leaves the viewer is forgettable. While Hardwicke’s direction is lively and Toni Collette gives a committed performance to make an absurd premise work, the screenplay lets everyone down in creating an emotionally engaging story. “Mafia Mamma” is a silly fish-out-of-water story that operates on surface level. When the fun and games are over, emptiness washes over.
The film establishes Kristin as a suburban mom who lives an ordinary life with her husband Paul (Tim Daish) and their son Domenick (Tommy Rodger). You see Kristin go through the motions of her day-to-day, until one day she catches her husband cheating on her. Distraught and blindsided, she finds solace in her friend Jenny (Sophia Nomvete). All the while, a life-changing phone call from Italy is about to change Kristin’s life. She is informed that her grandfather/mafia boss Don Giuseppe Balbano (Alessandro Bressanello) has died, and that she must attend his funeral in Italy. Kristin runs this through with Jenny at an exercise class; Jenny amusingly encourages her to “Eat, Pray, F**k,” a play on the 2006 Elizabeth Gilbert novel “Eat Pray Love.” Kristin decides to use this opportunity as a chance to explore Italy — meet a partner, have great wine and food, and forget her troubles back home. But she is in for a dramatic awakening.
The changes brought on by Kristin’s inheritance of the mafia empire are not only tangible. In addition to a new scenery and wardrobe, the character of Kristin is going through an internal metamorphosis. When the viewer first meets her, she is lacking confidence in herself. Her marriage has fallen apart. She is not appreciated at her job; her bosses reek of toxic masculinity and sexism in the workplace. Her voice is not being heard. During her time in Italy, she becomes more confident in herself. She leads a daring and dangerous life, from accidentally killing people to severing eyeballs. Her voice becomes heard in a cutthroat business made up nearly all by men. The film struggles to really engage with who Kristin is at her core; it’s clear that she is on a path of empowerment and destiny, plus tapping into female rage, but her character development is messy. Rather than engage with promising themes, the film opts for cliches, stereotypes, and slapstick.
Inconsistent as it is in terms of humor level, the slapstick element of “Mafia Mamma” is precisely what makes the film entertaining. From the absurdity of the fish-out-of-water story, and goofy supporting mafia characters, to the majority of Kristin’s actions throughout. Only a truly versatile and committed actress could take on this material and create a worthwhile experience out of it. Toni Collette has the range; in her illustrious career, she has taken on nearly every genre. Does “Mafia Mamma” rank high among her best films? No, but it serves as further example of how dedicated she is to giving her characters a sense of purpose. With her unique talent, she pulls off an equally unique feat of suspending disbelief and going along with her character from one bizarre situation to the next.
Where “Mafia Mamma” falls flat can be felt watching the end credits. The film is silly fun to watch, but excruciatingly forgettable after the fact. The screenplay leans too far into slapstick to the point where it overpowers characters. Certain plot points in the story are sped through, especially in the final act where a courtroom sequence appears out of thin air. Collette is giving the energy that the film calls for, but at the expense of resonating character development that isn’t just surface level and full of cliches. The romance plot in particular between Kristin and Lorenzo (Giulio Corso), a man she randomly meets at the airport when she arrives in Italy, comes and goes. The film also criminally wastes the talent of Monica Bellucci; her commanding screen presence is incredible, but her character is given little to do and not much time to make an impact in the story.
“Mafia Mamma” is surreal to watch in its incessant dedication to goofy punchlines and stereotypical storytelling. While the performances are committed enough, the characters lack the dimension to stand out beyond the circumstances they are in. The film’s emphasis on situational cringe comedy grows tiresome. But the entire cast are game, and their commitment (centrally Collette) in each and every scene pays off in creating campy entertainment. “Mafia Mamma” doesn’t hold a candle to resonant crime films, nor do the screenwriters have a good story on their hands. But ultimately this is a fun, goofy time from start to finish. “Mafia Mamma” arrives in theaters April 14.