Film Review: Friends and Romans

Led by the wonderfully authentic Michael Rispoli, this combination wise-guy caper and ode to the theatah works amazingly well, delivering solid, warm-hearted entertainment.
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Oscar Wilde once said, “All the world’s a stage, but the play is badly cast.” At first glance, this could be an apt description of the production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar which Nick DeMaio (Michael Rispoli), a Staten Island truck driver and aspiring actor mostly typecast in Mafioso non-speaking bits, decides to produce and star in as his own very personal artistic statement. Casting himself as Mark Antony–which his idolized Brando played in the film–he surrounds himself with his gang of other Italian semi-employed thespians, similarly relegated to mostly playing mobsters. They’re a jolly band of harmless, aesthetically inclined facsimiles of wise guys, save one. That would be fanatical Joey “Bananas” Bongano (Anthony DeSando), the owner of the theatre, also cast in the play, who happens to be the mysterious killer of a Broadway producer who once crossed his dramatic dreams.

Such is the highly improbable but fully functioning premise of this basic ode to the dangerously alluring magic of theatre, snappily directed by Christopher Kublan from a well-crafted, often quite funny and touching screenplay he co-wrote with Rispoli and Gregg Greenberg. The mash-up of good-fellas with actor-y ambition and the Bard proves to be surprisingly fecund entertainment, and the whole shebang is suffused with a deep love for live performance that proves almost irresistibly infectious, however corny and contrived it might seem.

Rispoli, who was so charismatic as Johnny Depp’s sidekick in the underappreciated The Rum Diaries, steps into a rare lead role here, and carries it off with immense heart and charm. His is every bit the desperate, overlooked histrionic striver that that similar underdog, Dustin Hoffman in a dress, was in Tootsie, and he also handily earns your complete empathy. The quieter, more moving scenes involve his teenage daughter Gina (an appealing Katie Stevens), herself a hopeful actress who gets a lesson in heartbreak, while simultaneously being a sullen teen, ashamed of Daddy’s perpetuating Italian stereotypes when he acts. (When she expresses the hope of getting the lead of missionary worker Sarah Brown in her school’s production of Guys and Dolls, Nick suggests that Miss Adelaide is also a good part, to which she replies, “She’s a fat stripper. Is that how you see your daughter?”)

A stouter-looking Annabella Sciorra has a few affecting moments as Nick‘s wife, and, fugeddaboutit, the entire wisecracking, pinstriped entourage of Nick’s buddies are thorough charmers. (“This is Shakespeare! I’m used to doing shows in English!,” one of them observes.)

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