Two decades after serving as semi-light relief for Big Apple newspaper editors in the heady days of the John Gotti trial, the richly improbable story of Tommy and Rosemarie Uva gets lively, compassionate treatment in the latest likable effort from practiced East Coast portraitist Raymond De Felitta. Though the film reunites De Felitta with Andy Garcia, the star and producer of 2010’s “City Island,” the spotlight is ceded to sparky younger stars Michael Pitt and Nina Arianda as a Bronx-reared Bonnie and Clyde who hit on a novel, elegant and inevitably ill-fated get-rich-quick scheme: holding up and cleaning out Mafia social clubs, knowing their victims would keep the law out of it. Graced with good humor, seamy period texture and a particularly sensational turn from Arianda, this otherwise unassuming pic — premiered at the Miami Film Festival — opens in limited release on March 21, and should do its best business in ancillary.
The title “Rob the Mob” promises more of an outright romp than this entertainingly garrulous but ultimately melancholy crime tale delivers. De Felitta has probed the ambitions and anxieties of regular New York citizens in a number of his features — notably “City Island” and Sundance favorite “Two Family House” — but this is his first to focus principally on underworld matters, doing so with the deglamorized, domestic focus of many a post-“Sopranos” Mafia study. It certainly begins on an upbeat note, with Deee-Lite’s immortally kitsch club jam “Groove Is in the Heart” placing viewers immediately in the taste-challenged, politically and economically transitional milieu of early-’90s America, but a serious, unsanctimonious moral conscience will kick in well before the story’s wintry end.
The protagonists’ inadequate criminal credentials are established upfront with a botched flower-shop heist that lands Tommy (an inky-haired Pitt) 18 months in the slammer. Rosemarie (Arianda) attempts to go straight, securing employment with Lovell (Griffin Dunne), a smarmy ex-con debt collector who believes in second chances and agrees to hire Tommy, too, upon his release. Tommy’s mind, however, is only half on the job. Fascinated by the ongoing Gotti trial, which he regularly skips work to attend, he fixates on one witness’ testimony about Mafia-owned drinking holes where no guns are permitted — with his and Rosemarie’s combined incomes barely getting them by, the criminal allure of this sitting-duck setup is too great to resist.
Kitted out with an Uzi he can barely handle and an initially skeptical Rosemarie as his getaway driver, Tommy pulls off his initial heists in such straightforwardly successful fashion that even he is taken off-guard — to say nothing of the FBI agents monitoring the raided clubs, or tabloid reporter Cardozo (Ray Romano), who offers Rosemarie a sympathetic ear and gives their story front-page placement. Most bewildered of all, of course, is the mob itself. Local don Fiorello (Garcia, exuding sage weariness from under a salt-and-pepper beard) initially deems the couple too lightweight to merit violent counteraction; when Tommy chances upon crucial inside information that could undo the entire syndicate, however, the stakes are raised.
Jonathan Fernandez’s brisk, flavorful script doesn’t exactly romanticize Tommy and Rosemarie’s misguided activity: Like Robin Hood, they’re stealing from the rich to give to the poor, with the sullying qualification that they alone are the poor in question. The tangled ethics of their scheme are of less narrative interest to De Felitta than the personal motivation behind it, as Tommy is revealed to have a personal score to settle with the Mob that relates to his estranged family. (Cathy Moriarty puts in a brief, stinging appearance as his unforgiving mom.) His and Rosemarie’s relationship, meanwhile, is depicted in affectingly febrile terms, their mutual devotion so reckless as to lead both lovers against their better judgment.
Unexpectedly but effectively cast in a role that plays to his sullen strengths, Pitt has a palpable, playful rapport with Arianda, a Tony-winning Broadway ingenue whose warm, expressive features and tinderbox comic timing recall the young Marisa Tomei – who would surely have played this role if the story had been more swiftly ripped from the headlines by Hollywood. Defining Rosemarie’s intellectual limitations with wit and not a hint of condescension, while playing up her persuasive personal magnetism, it’s a shrewd and sneakily touching star turn that stokes interest in her casting as rock icon Janis Joplin in Sean Durkin’s still-unproduced “Janis.” A multitude of faces readily associated with this geographic and cinematic terrain (including a couple of “Sopranos” alums) peppers the cannily-cast ensemble.
Techs are modest but efficient across the board; a climactic set piece that dives into time-lapse trickery feels discordantly ostentatious by comparison. Carlos Menendez’s production design and Tere Duncan’s costumes tidily re-create a shabby era of mirrored sunglasses and fluorescent Christmas decorations without lurching too far into parody.