Italy could use a biting dramedy about the last 46 years, but Giovanni Veronesi’s “The Fifth Wheel” isn’t that picture. Designed as the tale of a none-too-bright working-class Joe who lightly experiences the country’s ups and downs over nearly half a century, the pic pretends to a cynicism that’s mere window dressing for a pallid family tale in which characters get older but never wiser. Knowledge of Italo politics will be necessary to understand the film’s occasional nods to current events, limiting its offshore chances, but local play should be strong given the nation’s delight in nostalgia and sunny outlooks.
Little Ernesto was forever being slapped down by his misogynistic dad (Massimo Wertmuller), who took him out of school and forced him into his upholsterer’s business. By the late 1970s Ernesto (Elio Germano) hasn’t grown a backbone, but he’s an honest dope in Rome who somehow wins the affection of pretty Angela (Alessandra Mastronardi).
When baby Daniele is born, Angela’s parents pressure Ernesto into a stable job, the kind of low-level work won through connections and kept by not making waves. However, being a school chef doesn’t really suit him, so he starts a moving company with his best friend, Giacinto (Ricky Memphis). A chance assignment introduces him to the eccentric, spontaneous artist du jour known as the Maestro (Alessandro Haber), opening up a world of privilege and shallowness Ernesto never had access to previously.
Giacinto, always on the lookout for the next trend, moves on and up the ladder at a shady company connected with the ruling Socialist Party (it helps to know that the Italian Socialists imploded in a spectacular series of corruption scandals in the early 1990s). He gets Ernesto a job as more or less a stooge for slick, sleazy businessman Fabrizio del Monte (Sergio Rubini, overacting), but that goes up in smoke once the financial police examine the books. All’s not lost, as Ernesto can go back to his moving business, though health issues curtail his stamina.
Loosely based on the life of Ernesto Fioretti, a driver for Rome-based shingles, the film proceeds up to May 2013, when Silvio Berlusconi began to take a nosedive. Though Veronesi throws in a few knowing winks at the former prime minister’s now tarnished reputation, their inclusion feels like a weak-hearted obligation rather than a genuine spotlight aimed at the man’s legacy. In truth, that’s par for the course in “The Fifth Wheel,” which treats political trauma as a fifth wheel itself, tacked on to lend borrowed weight to a few scenes, but far less vital than, say, the 1982 World Cup.
That episode in itself could have been engineered into a sharp jab at those who care more for sport than for the health of their nation, yet Veronesi (of the “Handbook of Love” franchise) isn’t interested in anything so incisive. How else to explain the inclusion of something so lame as a split-trousers gag? A scene of Ernesto watching the news while former prime minister Bettino Craxi is hounded out of his residence by a coin-throwing mob will perplex anyone not familiar with the moment, which is burned into the Italian psyche.
Although the pic lays bare the crass opportunism and unsavory shenanigans of the Craxi-Berlusconi years, Giacinto, the character representing that faction, is presented as likeable. Oddly, the script tosses in some incongruous invective against doctors when a clinician’s terminal diagnosis is overturned by another doc, who is far more disorganized, and seemingly corrupt, than the first.
If these characters were people one could take to heart, then the arbitrary political insertions would at least be more tolerable, but Ernesto is a dumb cluck with unresolved father issues whose naive optimism is played totally straight. A hateful tirade he directs at Angela ought to be unforgivable yet leaves no residue; all is pardoned. The film also fails to make the two a believably loving couple: Angela is pleasant but wishy-washy, an obedient wife but rarely a soul mate.
Color tonalities shift in the early scenes between the 1960s and ’70s, becoming more uniform afterward. Period detail, from costumes to cars, is well done, with each era demarcated by a popular song of the time. The Maestro’s paintings are the works of famed contempo artist Mimmo Paladino.