Thomas Greco (Vincent Piazza), the hero of Nick Sandow’s debut feature, “The Wannabe,” is an aspiring mafioso. But the more desperately he tries to ingratiate himself with the mob, the more he creeps them out: After he hooks up with soulmate Rose (a magnificent Patricia Arquette), his kicked-puppy devotion turns proactive and he sets out to rob the very gangsters he wants to impress. Unlike Ray de Felitta’s wildly imaginative, underrated cocktail of humor and pathos, “Rob the Mob,” based on the same true-life story, “The Wannabe” takes a conventional tack. Though unlikely to catapult the pic very far, Arquette’s first movie performance since her Oscar-winning turn in “Boyhood” should assure distribution.
The film opens in Gotham in the early ’90s in the midst of the John Gotti trial, with the city divided between those who want the Mafia boss prosecuted and those who worship at the altar of this hometown folk hero. Thomas (Piazza, “Boardwalk Empire”) strongly allies himself with the crime boss, posturing and parading around in oversize suits as he attends the trial, loudly applauding Gotti’s courtroom comebacks, and portraying his turncoat henchman Sammy the Bull as a rat in caricatures, which he slips onto cars parked around the courthouse.
Thomas isn’t the brightest bulb in the Gotti-admiring firmament, and his efforts to win the mob’s respect inevitably backfire. Thus, his brilliant plan to suborn a juror by paying off his supposed twin brother (Thomas is ready to believe that two quite dissimilar-looking men are twins because both are black) ends in humiliation, again proving Thomas’ incompetence to the mob.
Indeed, it is Thomas’ childish ineptitude that first attracts Rose (Arquette) to the much younger man as she takes a last-ditch lunge at a love as maternal as it is all-out passionate. Fueled by crack and emotional frustration, the confused couple embark on a crime spree, robbing mafioso “gentlemen’s clubs” of cash and valuables; the members’ peaceful poker games are interrupted by a machine-gun-toting Thomas as Rose waits in the getaway car. They speed off breathlessly and cleanly every time, but Thomas repeatedly falls apart and dissolves in tears while Rose is required to keep cradling and comforting him.
“Rob the Mob” was a veritable cornucopia of brilliant supporting turns and memorable characters. “The Wannabe,” on the other hand, feels almost like a two-hander, with precious few secondary performances escaping one-dimensionality. A pony-tailed Michael Imperioli brings welcome depth to the underwritten role of Thomas’ florist brother, Alphonse, wearily dealing with his pathetic sibling for the umpteenth time. Vincenzo Amato impresses as the sinister, Italian-accented gangster Richie, who has a hinted-at history with Rose.
But since Thomas’ character is incapable of change or variation, and the film’s only engaging supporting players occupy a small fraction of the running time, it falls squarely upon Arquette to carry the film. With a repetitive script and characters exclusively defined by their limitations, even she can only do so much to milk the tragedy of a woman whose great love consists of such inferior material. As Richie puts it, “You coulda done better.”