Judge Gordon Sullivan's life is "inspired by true events."
Loyal to the Family. Devoted to her own.
To put it simply, Wisegal is the Lifetime network answer to Goodfellas. Alyssa Milano (Charmed) plays Patty Montanari, a character "inspired by true events." When her straight-arrow husband dies of cancer, leaving her to raise her two sons with no money, Patty takes over a nightclub for an amorous admirer, Frank Russo (Jason Gedrick, Born on the Fourth of July). She transforms the club from a dive into a profitable business, but only after her success does she discover that Frank is working for the Palmeri family, headed by Sal (James Caan, The Godfather). This means that she too is working for the Palmeri family; soon Sal asks her to make a run into Canada to pick up five hundred grand owed the family. Because of her plucky nature (and desire to provide for her kids), Patty makes the trip successfully and is rewarded handsomely. Things seem to be going well in her life, but the FBI and problems in the family lead her to make some tough choices about her future.
Considering this was a made-for-Lifetime movie, my expectations were very low. But surprisingly, Wisegal has a lot going for it. The first big plus is the story, which is compelling from both a plot and character perspective. Patty Montanari is a strong, independent woman and her rise in the traditionally male Mafia makes for an interesting story. Alyssa Milano's excellent performance brings Patty's strength to the forefront, making it all the more watchable (even if her Brooklyn accent comes and goes). The film's other strength is James Caan. He's not in very many scenes, but he lends credibility to the movie, bringing depth and dimension to a genre rife with superficiality. His few scenes are the highlights of the movie. He brings sincerity to Sal Palmeri with slow-burn intensity rather than mafia-inspired histrionics. I can't recommend the film just for his performance, but he doesn't act like he's slumming at all.
Although Wisegal has some effective performances and an interesting premise, it is far from a perfect movie. My biggest complaint about the film is that it's ridiculously preachy. It's not enough that it has all of the Lifetime movie hallmarks (a strong woman, philandering husband, female empowerment), but they had to add a pointless, overbearing voiceover. The movie is narrated by Patty's son, and there's lots of talk of God, and the Devil, and how the Devil makes promises to ensnare people. It was a bit much. One of the strengths of Goodfellas is that Scorsese lets us see the ups and the downs of mafia life without preaching to us about avoiding the Devil. Not so with Wisegal. My other complaint is that, because of the preachy nature of the film, we don't get to spend quite as much time with Patty at the top as I'd like. A few scenes allude to the new apartment, and her wardrobe obviously improves, but there's no vicarious sensation of forbidden wealth. This makes her eventual "fall" less interesting.
For a low-key television movie, Wisegal gets an effective presentation on DVD. The video displayed no compression artifacts, while clarity and detail remained surprisingly high considering the source. The audio was well-balanced, but otherwise unremarkable. The only extra is a 4-minute montage of behind-the-scenes footage. It looks like it was used as a bumper in between regular programming. There's also a trailer for those interested.
Wisegal is an interesting addition to the gangster canon because of its female protagonist and James Caan's performance. However, for typical gangster-film fans, it's probably not worth seeking out. The lack of the typical violence and foul language will make it a bit tame for most. Fans of the Lifetime movie formula will probably enjoy this reality inspired bit of drama, and this DVD is a great way to experience the story of Patty Montanari. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
• "Wisegal: Behind the Scenes"
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