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Thursday, November 8, 2007

Wise Guys, Part 2 (originally published 9/99)

Last week, inspired by the recent success of both "Analyze This" and "Mickey Blue Eyes," we were looking back at some earlier examples of the movie gangster stereotype played for laughs. Very quickly, however, we found ourselves in a rut. It was beginning to look as if every movie that had ever made fun of gangsters was based on the same premise: comic complications surrounding an average citizen who is mistaken for a mobster. To be sure, that conceit has always been a favorite among moviemakers, but it is by no means the only way to tell a funny story about organized crime. If you want a bit more variety in your gangster comedies, look for these titles on home video.

"Johnny Dangerously" (1984). What Mel Brooks did for the Western genre in "Blazing Saddles" this good natured send-up does for the classic gangster movies. Michael Keaton stars in the title role as a kid who is driven into a life of crime as a way of paying his mother's medical expenses. Meanwhile, his younger brother, who knows nothing of Johnny's criminal connections, grows up to be a lawyer and goes to work for the district attorney's office. Fans of the Warner Brothers gangster pictures of the Thirties and Forties will find every familiar cliché affectionately skewered here. Keaton is ably supported by a solid cast including Joe Piscopo, Marilu Henner, Peter Boyle, and Danny DeVito.

"Prizzi's Honor" (1985). Director John Huston's next to last film was this quirky black comedy about love and death in the criminal underworld. Charley Partanna (Jack Nicholson), a Mafia hit man, falls for Irene Walker (Kathleen Turner), a tax consultant. Subsequently, Charley learns that Irene is in fact a colleague of his. She's a professional killer. Regrettably, he also learns that she has betrayed his Mafia family. This revelation leaves Charley with a difficult choice, best summed up in his own words: "Do I marry her or do I ice her?"

"Married to the Mob" (1988). Angela DeMarco (Michelle Pfeiffer) is married to mob hit man Frank "The Cucumber" DeMarco (Alec Baldwin), but she isn't all that happy about it. She deplores the shady nature of her husband's work, but he isn't about to give it up because the fringe benefits include an ongoing affair with the mistress of mob boss Tony "The Tiger" Russo (Dean Stockwell). When Frank is eventually caught in this indiscretion, Tony has him rubbed out. Angela takes this opportunity to get away from the whole underworld scene. Unfortunately, it isn't that easy. Tony, it seems, is smitten by her. Worse yet, a couple of meddling FBI agents are determined to use her as bait in order to get to Tony.

"Cookie" (1989). Mobster Dino Capisco (Peter Falk) has done his time in the penitentiary and is a free man once more. All he wants now is to get to know his daughter, Cookie (Emily Lloyd), and maybe settle a few old scores. Cookie, by the way, is the daughter of Dino's mistress (Dianne Wiest), not his wife (Brenda Vaccaro). Still, she seems to take an interest in the family business, ultimately becoming Dino's chauffeur. This offbeat little picture from director Susan Seidelman is no classic, I suppose, but the excellent cast makes it well worth seeing.

"Oscar" (1991). Sylvester Stallone is not a name usually associated with comedy, but he makes a creditable comic showing in this tribute to the screwball comedies of the Thirties. Angelo "Snaps" Provolone (Stallone) agrees to give up his life of crime to fulfill the last wish of his dying father. Just as he's all set to go legit as an honest banker, he finds himself swept up into a plot of such multilayered intrigue that only his criminal wiles can hope to extricate him. Piling plot twists on top of mistaken identities, scriptwriters Michael Barrie and Jim Mulholland labored mightily to recapture the feel of the screwball genre, with generally pleasing results.

Looking back over our list of films, it seems clear that the best gangster comedies usually make use of leading actors who have proven themselves credible in dramatic gangster roles. Had Robert De Niro and James Caan not terrorized us as members of the Corleone Family, I can't help thinking that they would have been far less likely to have made us laugh in "Analyze This" and "Mickey Blue Eyes."

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