Mining family comedy terrain on a latitude close to “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” but with a coming-out angle replacing the cross-cultural dilemma, “Mambo Italiano” is far more intent on skewering ethnic stereotypes than gay issues, which are handled in an innocuous fashion seemingly designed to be digestible to mainstream audiences. The broad comedy is somewhat strained and obvious, and the hyper-real atmosphere encourages the cast to slice the prosciutto a little thickly. But the film’s sweet-natured ingenuousness proves reasonably contagious, providing steady enough laughs to keep niche audiences happy and perhaps give pic a distant shot at crossover traffic.
In a faraway, more vanilla universe from the edgy, early ’90s New Queer Cinema spearheaded by filmmakers like Gregg Araki, Tom Kalin and Todd Haynes, this Quebecois production adapted from Steve Galluccio’s hit play fits with such commercial, light-hearted fare as “Trick,” “Billy’s Hollywood Screen Kiss” and especially “Kiss Me Guido,” which shares Italian-American elements.
Those releases all have struggled to cross the $2 million mark, which likely will be the case with “Mambo” when Samuel Goldwyn launches the comedy in the U.S. in the fall. Canadian distrib Equinoxe — perhaps hoping to repeat its “Greek Wedding” success — opened pic wide throughout Quebec Friday , with English-language Canada to follow.
Film opens with an amusing recap of personal and family history from twentysomething Angelo (Luke Kirby), who’s feeling constricted in the closet and pours his heart out by phone to a patient helpline staffer (Tim Post). Angelo grew up an outsider nursing a crush on his childhood buddy Nino. He was branded a “fag” by the rest of the school and was infatuated with his flamboyant aunt, who died young after trying and failing to teach the mambo to a traditionalist family stuck doing the tarantella.
Bucking Italian family tradition by leaving home while still single to become a TV writer, Angelo re-encounters Nino (Peter Miller), who’s now a cop. Romance blossoms and cohabitation follows, albeit under the guise of being roommates.
At the end of the helpline session, Angelo has reached the conclusion it’s time for him to come out. The revelation of his sexual orientation predictably provokes hysteria from Angelo’s parents Maria (Ginette Reno) and Gino (Paul Sorvino), and creates angst for his neurotic but supportive sister Anna (Claudia Ferri).
The fever spreads when Nino’s controlling Sicilian mother Lina (Mary Walsh) gets wind of the scandal, prompting a funny altercation with Gino over which of their sons is the “top” in the relationship.
Indignation gives way to manipulation as the families both intervene to steer their sons back on the straight and narrow, pushing Nino into denial and ultimately forcing Angelo to find a new, more rewarding direction for his life.
While the outcome has an inkling of romantic comedy as Angelo establishes a more emotionally fulfilling relationship, this is treated as a throwaway incidental. Instead, it’s Angelo’s arrival at a point of peace, mutual respect and acceptance with his family that is the heart of the film.
The untethered shtick of the older-generation Italian characters is a little overbearing and caricatured, especially Sorvino and Walsh — who seems about as Sicilian as Liv Ullmann. But some of the script’s digs at Italian obsessions are amusingly illustrated: the rule that offspring leave home only to marry or to die, the fixation on job security and a pension plan as holy grails to be valued above all else, the romanticized view of the old country, and, above all, the paramount status of la famiglia as institution. The sense of cocooned insularity and the idea that Italians function best in their own “serene chaos” also comes across nicely.
While he’s slightly less persuasive in his dramatic family confrontations, Kirby makes a personable, self-effacing lead, and Miller serviceably fleshes out the conflicted hunk. Ferri scores some laughs but her character perhaps feels the most like a sitcom fixture. A number of sharply sketched marginal characters in helpline scenes provide some comic bright spots.
Serge Ladouceur’s clean lensing of the Montreal locations and production designer Patricia Christie’s colorful, semi-stylized decor give the film a vibrant look, matched by a peppy mix of Quebec composer FM Le Sieur’s score and various Italian tunes.