The latest entry in the pop culture arena to riff on the Mafia, “Mickey Blue Eyes” is an engaging, often very funny fish-out-of-water story that provides Hugh Grant with an excellent vehicle. Well timed to arrive in the wake of his $ 110 million-and-counting “Notting Hill” (and in advance of the bow of the second season of “The Sopranos”), the pic should hit a commercial bull’s-eye, bolstering the actor’s resurgence and reminding Hollywood that it doesn’t take Julia Roberts to make Grant appealing.
As Michael Felgate, a proper English auctioneer enamored of a schoolteacher (Jeanne Tripplehorn) who secretly happens to be a Mafia princess, Grant makes the most of his awkward, boyish, slightly bumbling screen persona and deftly pulls off the verbal and physical comedy.
While “Mickey Blue Eyes” doesn’t mine the same psycho-comedic territory as “The Sopranos” or the recent “Analyze This,” it likewise assumes audiences are familiar with the lexicon of Mafia lingo, have seen the same dozen or so mob-related films and are collectively steeped in gangster mythology. (For example, in one of Grant’s throwaway lines after having learned of his girlfriend Gina’s family connections, he reminds himself to “rent ‘Goodfellas,’ ‘Casino,’ ‘Godfather 1, 2, 3.’ “) That his prospective father-in-law, Frank Vitale, happens to be played by James Caan, who memorably incarnated Sonny Corleone, only adds to the winking mood.
Setup is straightforward: Michael proposes to Gina, who, terrified he’ll be sucked into the family business, reluctantly refuses. When Michael learns that Gina’s uncle Vito “The Butcher” Graziosi (Burt Young) runs more than a mere delicatessen, he insists he is up to the challenge. But Vito has plans to implicate the auctioneer in a money-laundering scheme involving his son’s atrocious surreal paintings (think Jesus with an Uzi). Before he can say “fuhgeddaboudit,” Michael is up to his baby blues in falsehoods, all the while trying to hide his business involvement from Gina for fear she’ll say she was right all along.
That series of lies prompts massive misunderstandings, suspicion of Michael’s infidelity, an inadvertent murder and a laceratingly funny attempt by Frank to pass Michael off to underworld associates as Little Big Mickey Blue Eyes from Kansas City. Frank tries to school Michael in mobster lingo, only to hear him give a ridiculously British, upper-class twist to classic wiseguy banter. One hilarious scene, set in a steakhouse, has Grant sounding like a cross between Tweety Bird and Madeline Kahn’s phonetically challenged diva from “Blazing Saddles.”
Grant’s part fits him like a custom-tailored Italian suit, whether he’s naively trading double entendres with Vito and Frank, performing a desperate striptease to distract Gina or affecting the most unconvincing Mafioso airs.
Caan is a fine foil as the wiseguy who wants his little girl to be happy, and Young makes an impressively intimidating, tight-lipped crime boss. Tripplehorn doesn’t get to do much other than look dejected, disapproving or disappointed, until she performs some 11th-hour shenanigans that seem to have been designed to give her character a bit more credibility. Supporting players, featuring many of the usual suspects from other mob films, are thoroughly well cast.
Though cliches abound in this pic, as in any self-referential mob movie, Adam Scheinman and Robert Kuhn’s script gives those conventions a comedic flair. Stowing a body in the back of a car, for instance, is a staple of any crime movie, but when it’s a trunk already crammed with toasters, Cuisinarts and assorted wedding gifts, the juxtaposition is unexpectedly funny.
Canuck helmer Kelly Makin keeps things moving, which helps ensure that even familiar situations are never boring. Gregory Keen’s production design lends the Little Italy locations a warmth and an intimacy that lenser Donald Thorin captures with cozily lit style. Ellen Mirojnick’s costumes are perfect at evoking character, from the crisp, button-down shirts Grant wears to the faintly tacky ’70s-style sunglasses and wine-colored suits donned by Caan. Soundtrack, featuring a number of well-chosen jazzy standards and ballads, is a keeper.