Mafia! (United States, 1998)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Perhaps the most intriguing question associated with this movie is what to call it. Originally, the film bore the moniker of Jane Austen's Mafia, but, when test audiences were confused by the title (an inexcusable 90% of Americans claim not to know who Jane Austen is), Touchstone Pictures rushed out new posters that cite the movie as Mafia! However, they neglected to change the title in the opening credits, which still reads Jane Austen's Mafia. I actually prefer the original name, because it shows some evidence of wit, a quality that this film is lacking in.

Maybe there's a law of diminishing returns involved here. Airplane! and The Naked Gun (the former of which was directed by Jim Abrahams, who helms Mafia!), two early entries into what has become a thriving comedy sub-genre, worked in large part because the humor was fresh. Now, countless movies later, many of the jokes seem recycled, even when they aren't. Too often, the viewer knows the punchline before the film delivers it, which isn't conducive to laughter. Mafia!, which incoherently spoofs The Godfather trilogy and Casino while taking isolated pot shots at Forrest Gump, E.T., Il Postino, Jaws, Showgirls, "A Christmas Carol", and Barney the purple dinosaur, has its funny moments, but, in the wake of the hilarious There's Something about Mary, it seems more than a little lame.

As is usual for this kind of picture, the range of available comedy runs the gamut. There are visual gags (games at a casino include Chutes & Ladders, Candyland, and "You Have Absolutely No Chance to Win"), puns, slapstick (the usual trippings, pratfalls, and dives into empty pools), flatulence, double entendres, mini-satires, and assorted vulgarities (projectile vomiting and a close encounter with a donkey's hindquarters). The volume of jokes is extremely high, presumably as a form of insurance -- if one fails, maybe the next will succeed. The problem is, Mafia! contains too many duds. And, when you're not laughing, you start to realize how little this film has to offer beyond the diluted humor.

Like The Godfather II, Mafia! trips backward and forward in time, offering us scenes in the 1900s, the 1930s, the 1970s, and the 1990s, with locations in Italy, New York, and Las Vegas. The Godfather, Don Cortino, is played by the late Lloyd Bridges, who thankfully doesn't attempt to do a Marlon Brando impersonation. Cortino comes over to America as a young boy and builds a crime empire. His son (the Al Pacino part), Anthony (a bland Jay Mohr), has tried to avoid being sucked into the family's business, but circumstances eventually demand his participation. When Anthony's sweet girlfriend, Diane (Christina Applegate), can't cope with his new criminal lifestyle, he takes up with a stripper (Pamela Gidley), who ends up plotting with his psychopathic older brother, Joey (Billy Burke), to eliminate him.

My guess is that the reaction to Mafia! will depend in large part upon how easily a viewer succumbs to laughter. If 50% of the film's gags work for an individual, that person is going to have an enjoyable time. Personally, while I could see the intended comedy in almost all of the jokes, most of them didn't tickle my funny bone. The movie as a whole is well-represented by the trailer, although, as is often the case, all of the best material is given away. Mafia! isn't a terrible film, and it will probably provoke at least a burst or two of laughter from even the most grim viewer. On the whole, however, it's a weak parody that is better suited to video viewing than a theatrical experience.

Mafia! (United States, 1998)

Run Time: 1:28
U.S. Release Date: 1998-07-24
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Sexual Content)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1