In "Married to the Mob" (selected theaters), director Jonathan Demme makes crystal-clear what some have suspected for quite a while: that there are few more luxurious movie pleasures than watching Michelle Pfeiffer when she's given a role worthy of her.
Here, Demme surrounds her with such elegant fellow actors as Dean Stockwell and Mercedes Ruehl, new to most, as a Long Island mafia don and his inflammably jealous wife. Demme adds reekingly perfect music and his own wide-eyed, affectionate vision of Lower Manhattan junk 'n' funk locations to create a frenzied Mafia farce, 1980s-style.
Strangely enough, "Married to the Mob," which may prove to be Demme's long-overdue passport to mass audience adulation, may tickle everyone but die-hard Demme fans.
They might have wished for something faintly less conventional from the master of everything wild. What could not be improved upon is Pfeiffer's Angela. Even in the killer company of Stockwell and Ruehl, her performance is the picture's linchpin--warm, delicately timed and utterly infectious.
Under the credits, Rosemary Clooney's "Mambo Italiano" transports us to the world of Angela De Marco, who has everything a mobster's wife could dream of: a \o7 faux\f7 marble, rococo split-level; stereos for every room--many still hot in their crates--and everything at considerably less than wholesale.
She has a gorgeous husband, "Cucumber" Frank De Marco ("Beetlejuice's" accomplished Alec Baldwin, in perhaps an homage to Ray Danton's Legs Diamond), who philanders only enough to keep his card-carrying macho credentials. And she has immediate sisterhood with the other mobsters' mostly young wives, the Press-On Set; a little scary but very, very, \o7 very\f7 supportive. (They are Ellen Foley, Joan Cusack and O-Lan Jones.)
So the De Marcos' 7-year-old son, Joseph Francis, is dealing a little three-card monte in their back yard. So he knows just where daddy keeps his revolver--in the drawer where most kitchens keep potholders. So who's upset? No one but Angela, it seems. Infected by a rare bug of normalcy, what she really wants is a life without blood on it, if she has to divorce to get it.
But within minutes of the movie's opening, Angela gets a whole lot more to upset her. Sudden widowhood, for one thing. The completely unwanted attentions of preening mob boss Tony (the Tiger) Russo (Stockwell), for another. A seething Connie Russo (Ruehl) for a third. And finally, after fleeing to the presumably more honest lower Lower East Side with young Joey, she gets the FBI, undercover. They bug her rat-hole railroad flat and plant agent Mike Downey (Matthew Modine), one of their finest white shirt/white sock types, right down the hall from her.
Mike's sweetness is a revelation to Angela, who's had creepy wiseguys all over her like Ace bandages since junior high school. Watching his gift for disguise or the dumb heroics with which he handles a gun, we may find him endearing too.
Actually, Mike is a 1,000% Boy Scout, only licensed to carry a gun. Even given her lust for normalcy, is this the man for our Angela? Maybe at first, but normalcy can be its own revenge. And unlike "Something Wild," which sported an equally strait-laced hero who would be unlaced, unzipped, unstuck and remastered by the end of the movie, these writers, Barry Strugatz and Mark R. Burns, have been so busy with the story's other rich characters that Modine's Mike ends up well on the anemic side.
Still, it leaves a quantity of pluses to distract us. Ruehl's lethal Connie Russo is one, out to protect her "Tone" against every back-combed poacher who ever drew breath, or in case her protection comes too late, to shoot him low enough so that the matter of adultery would never again arise. Tall, with a linebacker's shoulders and moves, it's Ruehl's vengeful implacability that makes her so epically funny.
Tony, dripping vicuna and misplaced sexual assurance, is another one of Stockwell's indispensable contributions to current films. The size of his roles never seems to faze him; in "Tucker," his Howard Hughes has a tenth the screen time of Tony, yet he hand-tools the definition of both roles with the same care and generosity.
And as always, music and ambiance are all in a Demme production. He dotes on wacky, eye-popping concoctions like those mob retreats, the King's Roost Restaurant and the Pantheon Room of the Fantasia Motel (East Coast kissin' cousin to the Madonna Inn). And there's the Hullo Gorgeous beauty shop down near Manhattan's Rivington Street, as well as the only-too-real Fontainebleau in Miami Beach.
Demme isn't aghast at kitsch, or even superior to it; actually, he's its purely loving archivist and he matches Kristi Zea's zestful production designs, setup for setup, with song after song (the contribution of Gary Goetzman and Sharon Boyle), from an original score by longtime collaborator David Byrne, with Craig McKay's crisp editing and Tak Fujimoto's pellucid camerawork.
And if, in the end, it's off a bit by the pure standards Demme has made us expect, if you judge by the summer lineup, that may still make "Married to the Mob" a three-base hit.
'MARRIED TO THE MOB'
An Orion Pictures release of a Mysterious Arts/Demme Production of a Jonathan Demme picture. Director Demme. Producers Kenneth Utt, Edward Saxon. Screenplay Barry Strugatz, Mark R. Burns. Executive producers Joel Simon, Bill Todman Jr. Associate producer Ron Bozman. Editor Craig McKay. Camera Tak Fujimoto. Production design Kristi Zea. Music supervision Gary Goetzman, Sharon Boyle. Costumes Colleen Atwood. Original score David Byrne. Sound recording Michael Tromer, Arthur Bloom. Hair styles designed by Alan D'Angerio. With Michelle Pfeiffer, Matthew Modine, Dean Stockwell, Mercedes Ruehl, Charles Napier, Joan Cusack, Ellen Foley, O-Lan Jones, "Sister" Carol East, Pe De Boi.
Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes.
MPAA-rated: R (under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian).