The Mafia, named after the Arab word for 'refuge', had its beginnings in the ninth century as an underground resistance during an occupation of Sicily by Arab forces. And though the Mafia was originally intended to create a unified political force that would create a sense of 'family' based on Sicilian ancestry and heritage, it gradually evolved over the centuries into a criminal organization that became embroiled in extortion, kidnapping, and murder. By the nineteenth century, the Sicilian government had even been infiltrated by the Mafia, after Don Rafael Palizzolo had coerced the province's voters into electing him into public office.
In addition to dominating the illegal activity in their native country, the Mafia looked abroad for new opportunities, particularly in the United States. The first evidence of Mafia activity on American soil was uncovered in nineteenth century New Orleans during the investigation of an Italian immigrant's murder. However, the modern American Mafia came to be when Don Vito Cascio fled Italy in 1901 and established the American chapter of the Black Hand, a criminal organization that provided the foundation for the modern Mob.
The American Mafia grew in numbers throughout the 1920s, due in part to a campaign by Mussolini aimed at purging Italy of the Mafia, and also due in part to the institution of Prohibition, which provided the Mob with a new and lucrative market. It was through Prohibition that some of the more well-known mobsters found their fame and fortune-- the 'Boss of Bosses' Charles Luciano, Myer Lansky, Benjamin 'Bugsy' Siegel, Dutch Schultz, and Alphonse 'Scarface' Capone.
In addition to spreading its influence into every illegal activity on the planet, the Mafia has also become ingrained into the lexicon of popular culture. From the gangster movies of yesteryear, to the more contemporary "Godfather" trilogy of films, generations of movie audiences have been enamored with the illicit exploits of the Mob. In the past year, audiences have witnessed a resurgence of Mob culture into the public vernacular with the recent multiplex offerings "Mafia!" and the recent "Analyze This", as well as the Emmy Award-nominated HBO series "The Sopranos". What sets these recent offerings from previous Mafia-inspired offerings (such as "Goodfellas" and "Casino") is the decidedly post-modern and comedic take on the conventions and lingo of Mob culture-- the iconic ruthlessness of the gangster is taken out of its usual context, often with humorous results.
The latest comedic take on gangland cultural constructs is "Mickey Blue Eyes", which throws a proper English gentleman in the midst of a Mob scene. Unfortunately, the result is not as laugh-out-loud funny as the superior "Analyze This". At its best, "Mickey Blue Eyes" is a passable fish-out-of-water tale that provides some entertaining bits in an otherwise unsatisfying whole.
Hugh Grant (seen recently in "Notting Hill") plays Michael Felgate, a very British auctioneer at Cromwell's Art House who is in love with Gina Vitale (Jeanne Tripplehorn of "Meet Joe Black"), a schoolteacher who also happens to be the daughter of Mob boss Frank Vitale ('Sonny Corleone' himself, James Caan). Michael is so deeply in love with Gina that he decides to propose to her, an attempt that initially fizzles. It seems that Gina is reluctant to take the plunge, fearing that the good nature of her husband-to-be will be hopelessly corrupted by the actions of her father Frank, and his mob cronies.
Despite Michael's reassurances to the contrary, Michael soon finds himself over his head after doing some seemingly-innocuous favors for Frank and generous benefactor Uncle Vito Graziosi (Burt Young)-- favors that soon mushroom into money-laundering and murder. Before he realizes, Michael is up to his neck in goombahs, and must adopt the alter-ego of 'Little Big Mickey Blue Eyes from Kansas City' in order to stay alive.
The concept of an Englishman trying to pass himself off as a cold-hearted gangster is ripe with comic possibilities, and "Mickey Blue Eyes" does offer up some amusing comic set-pieces. However, for the most part, "Mickey Blue Eyes" lacks the sharp writing and energetic performances that make "Analyze This" so much fun and give "The Sopranos" its wonderfully satirical edge. Instead, the tone of the film wavers, vacillating unevenly between being silly one moment and then deathly serious the next, leaving the audience unsure of when it is 'okay' to laugh. The film is also stacked with a number of humorless, not to mention downright cold-hearted, characters, which further kill any attempts at humor. The most notable would be Uncle Vito, a threatening character with no saving foibles or graces. At least in "Analyze This", you could laugh at the Mafioso-types, because they were genuinely comic characters (as well as not worrying about finding a horse's head in your bed the next morning).
Part of the problem with "Mickey Blue Eyes" resides with Grant, who plays Michael in the same manner he has played every other character in his filmography. Grant stays rigidly in the confines of the mild-mannered and affable English gentleman role that has made him famous, and as a result, his actions in pretending to be a gangster come off as half-hearted and lacking credulity. Contrast this performance to that of Billy Crystal, who pulled off the faux-gangster schtick with relish in the final act of "Analyze This". Grant's impersonation of a mobster is less inspired, and it becomes difficult to suspend your disbelief listening to his unintelligible mumbles that would hardly fool any of the real 'family' members.
Furthermore, as the love interest, Tripplehorn's character does not evoke much audience sympathy. Gina is unflatteringly portrayed as self-absorbed, petty, and querulous, which makes you question why Michael would be jumping through hoops to keep her happy. Even more incredulous is that the backstory states that Michael and Gina's courtship has only been a mere three months-- I was half-expecting another woman to enter Michael's life, a woman who would supplant the otherwise tenuous relationship he has with the unappealing Gina.
"Mickey Blue Eyes" has some noble intentions with its intriguing premise... unfortunately, the bungled execution fails to elevate this comedy beyond anything more than an interesting distraction. Granted, there are some humorous sequences, but some fundamental weaknesses in the writing and casting departments overwhelm "Mickey Blue Eyes", and it pales in comparison to the earlier, and much superior, "Analyze This".