“Eat, Pray, Love” is so over — ladies, we’ve officially entered the “Threaten, Extort, Kill” era. This unusual new ethos of empowerment is the guiding theory behind Catherine Hardwicke’s crime comedy/feminist manifesto “Mafia Mamma,” starring Toni Collette as Kristin, a harried American mom and marketing exec who discovers her own power after she ascends to the top of an Italian crime family. Aretha Franklin sang a girl power anthem about “R-E-S-P-E-C-T,” but what Kristin finds in Rome is a little “rispetto,” something she was sorely lacking in her previous life.
Elizabeth Gilbert’s 2006 memoir “Eat, Pray, Love” and its subsequent film adaptation starring Julia Roberts looms large in “Mafia Mamma,” as Kristin and her best friend Jenny (Sophia Nomvete) fantasize about escaping to a land of gelato, pasta and Italian hunks after Kristin walks in on her dirtbag man-child husband Paul (Tim Daish) mid coitus with the school guidance counselor. The pair of pals put a crude twist on the book title, but the imagined sensual pleasures remain the same, inspiring Kristin to make a last-minute trip to Italy for the funeral of her estranged grandfather, Giuseppe Balbano (Alessandro Bressanello).
After the funeral turns into a shootout in the cobblestone streets of a medieval Italian village, Kristin is shocked to discover that her grandfather, a vintner of terrible wines, was in actuality, the Don of the Balbano crime family, and he has selected her as his replacement. A 40-something mom in sensible sneaks as a Mafia Donna? It’s a premise ripe for fish-out-of-water comedy, out of which Collette and Hardwicke wring every last drop.
Collette’s performance of a ditzy, flirty, overwhelmed, horny and generally clueless American woman is so perfectly embodied as to enter the realm of parody, but the script, by Amanda Sthers, J. Michael Feldman and Debbie Jhoon, never condescends its heroine, nor does it require her to change. Sure, she gets a glamorous Mafia makeover courtesy of her right-hand woman, Bianca (Monica Bellucci), but Kristin succeeds because of her incongruously feminine qualities, not in spite of them.
She enters into a traditionally patriarchal and violent system, with strict codes of conduct and respect. While she indeed ends up threatening, harming and killing her enemies, she does it her way — she doesn’t have to become more like a man to make it work. She taps into her pent-up female rage at her misogynistic co-workers on both continents to find the strength to fight back, stabbing a would-be assassin in the eyes and crotch with a stiletto in a highly symbolic attack on female objectification. More importantly, she leans into her whims and desires, transforming the Balbano crime family business into a matriarchy, producing fabulous wines and engaging in drug trafficking of the medicinal, not recreational, variety.
In return, her loyal soldiers teach her a thing or two about demanding respect, especially from her ex-husband Paul, who turns up looking for her, flabbergasted by the powerful woman he sees before him, though still not granting her due. Bianca also encourages Kristin not to throw away everything she’s built for a man, even if he is a pasta-making hunk named Lorenzo (Giulio Corso). (The tension between Kristin and Bianca even suggests a Sapphic subtext, which does fall in line with “Eat, Pray, Love” author Gilbert’s own personal post-Italy journey).
This high-concept romp demands an over-the-top and facile narrative, and some of the bits are a bit hackneyed, but “Mafia Mamma” is much more wacky, funny and violent than the too-tame trailers would have you believe. Collette goes for broke in her performance and Hardwicke juggles the tone, style and genre play with ease, smuggling in a surprisingly radical message about an overtaxed middle-aged woman finding her bliss and earning the dignity she deserves through the traditional customs of her crime family. In this daring, and utterly charming, take on a woman’s midlife crisis, embracing the Mafia lifestyle means having her gelato and eating it too.
3 stars (out of 4)
Rated: R (for bloody violence, sexual content and language)
Running time: 1:41
How to watch: In theaters Friday
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