Although it's had its share of clunkers (we can argue about the supposed merits of Analyze This! and its ilk another time), the mobster comedy sub-genre has had produced a sprinkling of memorable movies over the years, though the best have usually had a dark edge to the comedy – think Bullets Over Broadway or Married to the Mob and you'll get my drift. It's partly this that makes them so memorable, anchoring the froth in a degree of gravitas. Not that I'm opposed to froth if it makes me smile. And Meet the Mobsters, which has been rather clunkily retitled from the original Johnny Slade's Greatest Hits, made me smile a lot. Intermittently it made me laugh out loud.
It's built around a rather neat concept. Johnny Slade is a lounge singer whose refusal to do cover versions of other people's songs has prevented him from landing that big record contract. Things start to look up when his manager Jerry lands him a job headlining for a newly opened club. The pay is good, but there's just one condition – each night Johnny must perform a new song penned by his surly and reclusive boss Mr. Samantha, who insists that the lyrics always be clearly enunciated. And these are not good lyrics, the sort that seem destined to have an audience sniggering into their napkins rather than swooning at Johnny's on-stage cool. But the first song, 'You Funny, Stupid Shoes', goes down unexpectedly well, largely because the audience assume it's a comedy number, something would-be smoothie Johnny does not appreciate. The following morning, however, Johnny reads in the paper that a professional gambler known as Jimmy Shoes was assaulted in a manner strangely reminiscent of some of the song's lyrics. As further tunes lead to similar attacks and worse, Johnny realises he has become the singing conduit for the delivery of orders from an in-hiding mob boss to his men, and that backing out of the deal is no longer an option.
It's an amusing set-up that writer-director Larry Blamire does well by, keeping things moving at a lick and peppering his script – developed from a story by leading man John Fiore – with an off-the-wall wit that genuinely has you wondering what's going to pop out of the characters' mouths next. Old favourites are re-energized by their delivery – "Wow, you can read," observes club manager Charlie wearily after Johnny brings her attention to a newspaper story. "I just lost a bet" – but hardly a dialogue exchange passes without at least one enjoyably oddball line. When Charlie asks Johnny if he's making fun of her, for example, he assures her in all sincerity that "I'd rather choke an ostrich," while when challenged by Johnny about having to sing Mr. Samantha's songs, Jerry assures him "I swear on a stack of babies I knew nothing about this." Occasionally it's genuinely hard to pinpoint why a line is so funny, as with Jerry's flustered but mixed-up proclamation "Oh how mighty have the fallen!" The penchant for giving movie gangsters their own pet phrases is also amusingly sent up when one of Mr. Samantha's henchmen announces suddenly to his companion, "I'm thinking of ending every sentence with 'like a fucking monkey'," an expression he intermittently road tests and by the movie's end is showing signs of wider acceptance.
The laughs are not restricted to the dialogue and its energetic delivery. Johnny's first meeting with Mr. Samantha is a lovely slice of physical comedy, with Johnny struggling to clamber into a chair that has been wedged into a ridiculously small space, while Mr. Samantha glowers silently at him with an unwavering look of sinister distaste. The central concept also provides its share of comic moments that simultaneously advance the plot, as when Johnny faces instant assassination by a rival Irish mob if he doesn't sing an anti-Italian song to the assembled mobsters and takes a beating for his impudence, or his realisation that he can write his own tune to settle a score with the comic who introduces him each night. Even the Feds try get in on the act with a comically weak number composed by two gushingly star-struck agents with dreams of a new showbusiness career. Perhaps the biggest music-related gag of all is that while Johnny is initially aghast at the numbers he has been asked to perform, he is blissfully unaware that his own songs are equally poor (full marks to composer Ed Grenga for the line he walks here) and that this is the real reason no record company will touch him. He's late into his adventure before Jerry puts him straight, confessing that even he never liked the tunes. "I thought they were interesting," he admits, "like a cow with a beard is interesting."
A spot-on cast have fun with characters that naturally lend themselves to send-up and exaggeration. A good many of them have been imported from The Sopranos and here are offered a golden opportunity to let loose with roles they've previously played straight (well, straight-ish). John Fiore does a nice line in lounge lizard cheese and disbelieving outrage as Johnny, Dolores Sirianni is suitably hard-bitten as Charlie, and Richard Portnow runs on excited energy as Johnny's agent Jerry Kaminski. But winning it by a neck has to be Vincent Curatola as Mr. Samantha, for the silent malevolence of his glare, the deadpan contempt of his delivery, his unexpected comic timing (an angry rant is interrupted to politely offer Johnny coffee), and for the soft underbelly of his character that peeps out when his songs start to become popular.
It's encouraging to discover that Meet the Mobsters – a film I was unaware of until the UK DVD release was announced – appears to have found a small but enthusiastic and appreciative audience. It deserves to find a wider one. Although neither infused with deeper meaning nor cinematically ground-breaking, it's smartly made, energetically paced, enthusiastically performed, and – crucial this one – is often witty and very funny. Definitely worth checking out. Like a fucking monkey.
A bright and detailed anamorphic 1.78:1 transfer with excellent colour and contrast (although this does soften in some of the darker scenes) and a crisp sharpness that never looks artificially boosted. There are some minor compression issues on the single-colour backgrounds of the title sequence (which is a hoot in itself, for the bouncy but ludicrous song, its "hey ladies!" presentation, and for the mock album covers that precede it), but otherwise this is a fine transfer. The only concession to what I'm assuming was a low-ish budget comes early with a hand-held shot that walks with Johnny and Jerry backstage and that goes way out of focus for long enough to suggest a reshoot simply wasn't feasible.
The soundtrack choice is between Dolby 2.0 stereo and Dolby 5.1 surround. Both sound fine but the surround track is livelier in every respect, particularly in the inclusive spread of its background effects and the tonal range of the music, which really does sound good here. Well, sonically good – let's not go nuts.
Optional subtitles for the hearing impaired are also available.
Only a Trailer (1:59), a jovial sell that captures the flavour of the film rather well.
A mobster comedy that's as smart as it is funny and whose delicious cast do a fine line in send-up without overplaying their collective hand, which together with Blamire's smart script and breezy direction make it work a small treat. The DVD is light on extras, but the transfer and 5.1 track are on the nose. Recommended. With a big smile.