Matthew Modine and Michelle Pfeiffer in 1988's "Married to the Mob."

Married to the Mob

January 18, 2021

DIRECTED BY

Jonathan Demme

 

STARRING

Michelle Pfeiffer

Matthew Modine

Dean Stockwell

Mercedes Ruehl

 

RATED

R

 

RELEASED IN

1988

 

RUNNING TIME

1 Hr., 44 Mins.

I

don't doubt that getting out of mob life after years of living it is a stressful and unpleasant experience. But in Married to the Mob (1988), those stresses and unpleasantries are softened, and almost everything else

surrounding the break is pitched up to farce levels of zaniness. Written by Barry Strugatz and Mark R. Burns and directed by Jonathan Demme, the movie is pretty thin, but it’s consistently likable and mostly funny, and it's

touching when it's supposed to be.

 

Married to the Mob orbits around Angela de Marco (Michelle Pfeiffer), the wife of the late mafia upstart Frank “The Cucumber" (Alec Baldwin). Shortly into the movie, Frank is gunned down by boss Tony “The Tiger” Russo (Dean Stockwell) in a fit of passion: He’s discovered that Frank has been getting it on with his mistress, Karen (Nancy Travis), on the down low. Angela, who’s never especially liked mob life anyway — she rejects most social-outing invites and frets when she notices any of Frank’s criminal leanings rubbing off on their son Joey (Anthony J. Nici) — decides to use the sudden demise as an opportunity to get away from it all and restart, despite chirrups from Frank’s associates and the other wives who pretend to like her that she should stick around because she’s family. She donates everything in her and Frank’s house to the Goodwill (she doesn’t want to keep stuff covered in proverbial blood); then she and Joey head to a dismal apartment with a bathtub in the kitchen in New York City, hopefully exorcising themselves of all mob connections in the process. When Angela lands a job at a hair salon — the same salon that chops off the leonine mane she’s grown as a married woman — it seems like the confirmation of an auspicious start.

 

But clean breaks, Angela will learn, have a high chance of getting dirty when you're running from something like she is. It turns out that Tony is being surveilled by the FBI, and since he imprudently came on to Angela at Tony’s funeral, the agents following him, Mike and Ed (Matthew Modine and Oliver Platt), think that maybe Tony and Angela are having an affair — and that 

maybe she'd be a good pawn to help bring about a long-awaited arrest. Mike poses as a plumber who lives in Angela’s apartment building; he frantically bugs odds and ends while she's trimming bangs and blowdrying freshly shampooed hair. Things get complicated when Angela and Mike meet. When they fortuitously get acquainted in an elevator (a piece of bulky furniture she’s moving in smushes him into a corner), she immediately takes a liking to him. Things are doubly complicated when her feelings, whether Mike would like to admit it to himself, are reciprocated once they get to know each other better.

 

Few cast members in Married to the Mob seem to be acting in the same movie. Pfeiffer is wonderful (she has a rather earthy quality here), but she’s so comparatively sensible to everyone else that we can’t picture her so much as getting involved with Frank in the first place. When the movie’s antics start to get screwier, she remains close-to-the-ground while everyone else is fired up. It’s a little off. Modine can be charming in other movies, but his character is so serially awkward and dweebish, and not in an appealing way, that we can hardly see what Angela sees when they first meet. We can tell by the glowy, wet look in her eye that for her, this might be love at first sight — an unusual reaction to a character who suggests one of the geeky teens Anthony Michael Hall played in his John Hughes team-ups all grown up. Unlike Hall, we can’t gauge Modine’s sincerity when he isn’t fumbling around. He doesn't know what to make of this character; his confusion repels charisma.

 

Stockwell and Mercedes Ruehl, who plays Tony’s hot-headed wife Connie (she’s an even more neurotic precursor to Lorraine Bracco’s paranoid character from 1990’s GoodFellas), are playing cartoons of mafia-movie types we’ve come to know. They’re lively, and Ruehl is particularly funny, though when Pfeiffer and/or Modine shares the room with either of them, they might as well not exist: Stockwell and Ruehl are doing big acting. The former is a believable scion of the menacing big boss men of 1930s Warner Bros. gangster features. He’s unnervingly serene most of the time, and when he kills Frank it's as if he's merely smoking a cigarette — he's good at maintaining cool. Ruehl is a special weather event whenever she storms into the room. Not an inch of her body is dressed in a way that doesn’t remind us of her theatricality — she loves furs and noisy bling, and her hair recalls Medusa — and Ruehl uses this style to her advantage. She knows it makes her every gesticulation appear more animalistic. 

 

I didn't mind the scattered characterologies in Married to the Mob. Except for the hard-to-pinpoint Modine, each performer is so individually winsome and comfortable doing what they're doing that we're happy to go along with whatever direction they're going in.  This discordance could elsewhere throw the movie all out of whack — put its tone into question — but Demme never lets the movie get too comical or too earthbound. The throughline is that this is an oftentimes emotional story about a woman trying to put her life back together, and that doesn’t get overshadowed. It rings so emotionally true, and is so bolstered by Pfeiffer’s groundedness, that the decorative circumstances don’t set the movie off track.

 

The movie isn’t very forceful, and isn’t as daring as Demme’s previous project Something Wild (1986). That movie also was primarily about reinvention, but it went about it in a way that, while admirably eager to risk-take, was to my eye more than it needed to be keen on throwing curveballs. But Married to the Mob is too good-natured and well-performed to have many damaging gripes with — and the affection everyone involved with its making has for the Pfeiffer character shines through. B+