A comedy about refuting expectations that never deviates from formula, “Friends and Romans” squanders charismatic star Michael Rispoli in a leaden mess that elicits nothing but eye-rolling groans. Populated by Italian-American actors most notable for filling out the ranks of various gangster films and TV shows, director Christopher Kublan’s dramedy finds a pigeonholed thespian trying to break free from his dead-end career as an extra in organized-crime fictions by staging a one-night-only theatrical Shakespeare production. While its portrait of people striving to be more than they are — or presumed to be — affords some genial uplift, this indie’s theatrical prospects will probably be limited to the tiny niche of moviegoers who can’t get enough “Godfather”-related gags.
Operating from the premise that Don Corleone impersonations are the height of hilarity, Kublan’s film (co-written with Rispoli and Gregg Greenberg) opens with Staten Island native Nick DeMaio (Rispoli) at an audition, where he’s rejected for being a rightly typecast mob-movie actor with only one disreputable line (from “The Sopranos”) to his name (“Va fangool! Why don’t you lock up the mulignans? They’re the ones burning down Newark!”). Like his best friend, limo driver Dennis (Paul Ben-Victor), and a collection of buddies doing similar work in stock gangster parts, Nick — who earns a living delivering fruit to New York City delis and restaurants — is assumed to be nothing more than an embodiment of his well-dressed thug roles. While his wife, Angela (Annabella Sciorra), is supportive of his faltering acting dreams, his teen daughter, Gina (Katie Stevens), looks down on his oeuvre, censuring him for participating in projects that perpetuate negative ethnic stereotypes.
The movie’s self-conscious shenanigans take flight when Gina gets the lead in her high school’s production of “Guys and Dolls” — a family favorite, due to Marlon Brando’s participation in the big-screen version — because her teacher, stuffy Mr. Rothman (Patrick Kerr), wrongly assumes that Nick is a real-life mobster. It’s the sort of twist that would be right at home in an episode of “Three’s Company,” and sets the tone for the rest of the film, which soon finds Nick trying to branch out by putting on “Julius Caesar” — referred to by multiple characters as the story of the “whacking” of “the original Godfather.” What follows are montages of heavily accented Italian-American actors floundering about trying to master the Bard’s iambic pentameter, as well as a subplot involving Joey “Bananas” (Anthony DeSando), a killer wanted for offing a Broadway producer whose own stage ambitions lead him to audition for, and nab, the role of Brutus in Nick’s show.
The ensuing hijinks also include an undercover FBI agent named Goldberg (Charlie Semine) who, in one particularly clumsy bit, convinces Nick and Danny to let him stay in the cast because, as a Jew, he too understands the pain of negative media portrayals. Unfortunately, while “Friends and Romans” feigns interest in subverting long-held ideas about minorities, its cliched story and monotonous supporting performances largely reinforce the notion that the guys spied in the background of “Carlito’s Way” and “Married to the Mob” are one-note performers primarily fit for spouting profane slurs and “fuhgeddaboudits” while wearing snappy black suits.
That’s not true of Rispoli, a character actor who — as in his headlining turn in 2000’s “Two Family House” – exhibits the sharp comedic timing and understated emotional complexity otherwise wholly absent from these proceedings. Amidst inside-baseball jokes about “Hamlet,” plot threads whose resolutions seem to have been assassinated in the editing room, a third-act devolution into life-imitating-art suspense, and inert direction by Kublan marked by a few tedious tracking shots modeled after those found in “Goodfellas,” Rispoli manages to rise above this sloppy, repetitive material, which argues against judging a book by its cover even as it defines itself via sitcom-grade visuals and one-liners.