If you were a fan of My Big Fat Greek Wedding – and, admit it, like just about everyone else in the world, you probably were – you’re definitely in for a treat with Mambo Italiano. But even if you didn’t just loooooove Nia Vardalos’s long-running, record-breaking, cliché-ridden yuk fest, with its two-dimensional characters and sitcom scenarios, there’s still a darn good chance you’ll be taken in by the irresistible charm and surprising emotional tug of what can best be described as My Bigger Fatter Gay Italian Tony n’ Tino’s Wedding.
Comparisons between the two films are inevitable, and for good reason. Both are quirky-but-loving portraits of immigrant families and their often-volatile idiosyncrasies. Both are bombastic and obvious, funny and earnest. But even though it isn’t likely Mambo Italiano (or any other film, for that matter) will ever duplicate the unprecedented – and unexpected – success of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, this effervescent French-Canadian import is actually a distinctly better movie.
As in Vardalos’s autobiographical film, the action in Mambo centers on the stifled grown child of an immigrant couple, who’s still living at home because of ethnic customs that permit only married offspring to leave the nest. Here, he’s Angelo (Luke Kirby), an awkward Friend of Dorothy with what may be the most wonderfully angst-ridden, puppy-dog eyes and irresistibly thick mop of curly brown hair in the history of gay cinema. Angelo wants to move out on his own, and to become a TV writer, but more than anything, he wants his parents (Paul Sorvino and Ginette Reno) to stop fixing him up with “nice Italian girls.”
To that end, Angelo summons the nerve to forego tradition and flies the coop, despite the vociferous howls of his melodramatic parents. In typically screwball fashion, a chance encounter suddenly reunites Angelo with his childhood best friend, Nino (Peter Miller), who’s now a police officer with his own well-hidden sexual secret. Before you can say “that’s amore,” the two are shacking up and getting down, taking great pains to explain to their inquisitive families and nosy neighbors that they’re just “roommates.”
The spaghetti hits the fan when Angelo, not content as Nino is to live within the constricting confines of the closet, discloses his – and, by default, Nino’s – sexuality to his mortified parents. The bulk of the movie is then taken up with over-the-top, Italian-style histrionics. Accents and mannerisms are heaped over the angel hair-thin proceedings like a thick, meaty Bolognese. Says Angelo’s father to his mother upon hearing the news their son is gay, “It’s all-ah you fault!” To which she pointedly retorts, “he’s-ah gotta get it from-ah somebody!!!”
On the surface, the shenanigans seem only slightly more substantial than the average Ragu commercial. But a closer look reveals a bevy of fully fleshed characters dealing with genuine conflicts and desires, albeit in an ultra-exaggerated and, often, highly hysterical manner. Director-screenwriter Emile Gaudreault, who based his script on a stage play by Steve Galluccio, displays an energetic appreciation for both Italian and queer cultural details. He aims his arrows more frequently at the former, but the best of his lovingly lobbed potshots skewer both Italian and gay stereotypes simultaneously, as when Angelo and Nino’s parents argue thusly: “Are you sayin’ my Nino is-ah banging your Angelo?!” “No, I’m-ah sayin’ it’s-ah the udda way around!”
Although patently funny, such exchanges (and there are tons just like it) offer loads of insight into the minds of these admittedly larger-than-life characters. To their credit, each of the performers involved strikes a terrific balance between caricature and characterization. This is particularly true of Sorvino, who restrains himself admirably in a role that could have been taken way too far over the top – especially by an operatic actor like himself. Also noteworthy is Claudia Ferri, who garners plenty of laughs as Angelo’s equally miserable and increasingly dejected older sister.
Unfolding against a kitschy backdrop of bold ‘70s earth tones, tacky gilded furniture and gaudy floral patterns that perfectly suits the colorful and boisterous story, Mambo Italiano is sappy, slight and incredibly silly. But, like its Greek predecessor, it has more heart – and comes from a much more truthful place – than almost any romantic comedy in recent memory. It doesn’t matter that we can see the wheels turning most of the time. We may know where we’re headed, but the ride’s fun all the same.
(Appeared in Gay City News)