Artisan // 2000 // 110 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron // June 19th, 2003
In the mob, you're either made men or...complete dolts!
Angelo and Paulie, two mealy meatballs with limp linguine for friends, spend their afternoons playing stickball and their free time wondering if it's Prince spaghetti day (and only getting it right 14.28% of the time). They also have a hard time grasping the whole sauce/gravy dynamic. One day they get into a scuffle over $20 and a local mafia mediator, Santo, steps in to show the warring factions the power of positive threatening. Angelo likes what he sees so much he decides to con his compatriots into becoming bookies. At first, they fail. Then they succeed. Then they try their hand at muscling immigrant storeowners out of their green stamps. This gets Santo's attention, and no sooner has he threatened the wussy wiseguys with a whack than they all give each other the kiss of death and makeup. Eventually, Angelo is handling all manner of mob machinations for Santo and the dim Don is treating him like a second son. And this really ticks off his first son, the incredibly weasel like Vinny, who talks like he just graduated from the Tommy DeVito Shine Box School of Pronunciation. Vinny hates Angelo and his macho, more or less human resembling good looks. And when Santo takes a coughing jag a bit too far, Vinny vows to assume his rightful place as the head of the family. And he has some just desserts for these Wannabes...and they don't involve candy coated almonds or Toblerones.
Wannabes is a totally appropriate name for this movie, and not in reference to the retards that make up our group of mobsters in transmogrification. Nope, this is a film that "wants to be" something it cannot possibly ever achieve. It "wants to be" a companion piece to the gritty urban violence of Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets and GoodFellas, telling its tale of goombahs who grow up and into a life of crime via voice-overs, rock music, and montages. It "wants to be" a powerful, operatic story of America and the dream of money and power ala The Godfather, even going so far as to paint its cinematic palette in the rich antiqued browns and reds that made Coppola's masterpiece so set designer deep. Looking over the current crop of pop culture gangsters, it sees, it hears, and it really "wants to be" a Sopranos style updating of the whole Cosa Nostra notion of family loyalty mixed up with the infusion of young, violent blood and moral conscious. Occasionally, it "wants to be" a "say allo to ma little frehn" slice of slick violence like Scarface, hoping to score points in the hip-hop crowd with its gun wielding, blood spewing stand-offs. And there are times it "wants to be" a crime comedy, the kind of movie that gets chuckles out of waiters peeing in Cokes and fat guys falling down. Hell, it even "wants to be" entertaining, hoping the audience sympathizes and cheers for these ersatz Italians as they instinctually avoid college and personal betterment and exhibit culturally accurate racketeering and retributive behavior.
This notion of wanting to be can also apply to the cast, each of whom has an example of a big name Hollywood superstar/Oscar winner that they try and crib their entire persona and performance from. Take William DeMao as the lead loser Angelo, the young tough so tired of his nowhere life that he decides street crime and extortion is a step up on the social ladder. Robert De Niro circa Raging Bull is who this actor "wants to be," mixing a little of Bobby's somber intensity with a lot of his excess verbal muttering. The final combination is more Jake Busey than LaMotta. Joe Vitarelli, on the other hand, "wants to be" Marlon Brando, giving his family head a quite, conscious dignity that comes from respect, not from insane behavior. His Don Santo indeed comes across like the cranky Corleone -- that is, if said Sicilians face was dipped in batter and deep fat fried to a pock marked puffiness. His Mafioso is all gristle, no lean. Other members of the cast mix James Caan with Andy Garcia, add a little Al Pacino and pour on a whole lot of Sal Viscuso and sidewalk organ grinder to create their incredibly stereotypical street thugs. Only Joe D'Onofrio as Vinny, the Joe Pesci "want to be," doesn't have to "want to be" that unhinged hitman/screaming meanie. His brief appearance in GoodFellas as the young Tommy DeVito completely explains why he channels Joey P's pissed off pasta head perfectly. If the Italian American League Against Defamation is looking for a poster film to champion its agenda, Wannabes "needs to be" it.
The real tragedy here is that Wannabes acts like it's making some manner of grand cinematic statement. Starting with a garbage dump beating meshed into a nostalgic game of stickball, it tries to wow with cursing and curve balls. Then it marches through a series of slow motion shots of T-shirted tough guys walking indignantly down their neighborhood streets and montages of money being counted like both images underscore the brotherhood and benefits of crime. It then comes back to end on a lone figure meting out justice to the ones who've wronged him, all the while a disembodied voice talks of loyalty and love. After the final shot, Wannabes sits back and waits, hoping that its epic sweep also cleans up some of its plot and character litter along the way. But it can't. From the minute Joe D'Onofrio's venomous vermin Vinny shows up to pout and shout, you know where this film's going. As the main character pees in a pitcher of Coke as a kind of warped waiter's revenge, we see that Wannabes will ultimately boil itself down to a story of Angelo (the maker of a #1 cocktail) and his misguided pride. No amount of old school touches (an uncle with a cancerous voice box) or new jack jive (an independent minded girlfriend) can save this misguided mobster mash from imploding on its intentions. This is criminal behavior viewed through the mythology of the movies, not real life. It's hard to imagine a John Gotti or other real life gangsters acting like the aimless assbags here. Wannabes "wants to be" a powerful mob movie. In reality, it can't even be honest with itself.
Every once is a while, Artisan does something that is so unconscionable with the release of a movie to DVD that you have to wonder if anyone, or anything other than overripe mush melons, are in charge of quality control over at the home of hackwork. The issue here? Wannabes' original aspect ratio. Artisan provides the film with a horrendous, mind blowingly bad pan and scan nightmare that has conversations occurring between characters off screen (who should be on), sequences where all we see are the tips of actor's noses, and that irritating optical movement that blurs the sets and action into a low rent version of bullet time. Obviously directors Charles Addessi and William DeMeo utilized the entire widescreen frame to compose their stupid tale of tainted Italians shooting guns, so why make matters worse with a crappy copy of the print? No matter how polished and crisp the images look, they are still being compromised by Artisan's tube filling fiasco. And then they go an offer a Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround soundtrack as if to say "as long as it sounds good, who gives a gonad if the aspect ratio is correct." Wannabes does have a decent aural presentation, filled with many moments of channel challenging exchanges. Add a tacky trailer and you have another variation on the Artisan Edict (let's call this one "treating trash like trash") to add to the grindstone. True, a movie like Wannabes doesn't deserve first, or even worst class treatment. But the amount of disrespect shown here by Artisan to this mob muddle rivals the actions of that turncoat Tessio at Don Corleone's funeral. Wannabes may deserve a whole stable of thoroughbred scalps in its cinematic bed, but Artisan deserves a Moe Green, two Fredos, and a couple of Carlos for the horrid, full screen pander and scandal image.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 110 Minutes
Release Year: 2000
MPAA Rating: Rated R