Monday, March 17, 2014

Raymond De Felitta's ROB THE MOB is his best yet: a real NY story done gloriously well; plus a quick Q&A with this very special filmmaker

I get asked, once in awhile, who's your favorite filmmaker? Though I have several favorite foreign directors, of the Americans, I'd have to say that hands down, it's Raymond De Felitta, shown below, whose work has always rated very highly in my estimation. Now, with theatrical release of his latest film, ROB THE MOB, he's gone right to the top. This is the quintessential You-gotta-love-New-York movie -- from its ditsy, delightful (and also a little scary) romance at the center of the film, to the mobsters that eventually surround the lovebirds, to the unlike-anything-you've-seen office environment in which the pair is employed, to the Feds who are watching those mobsters, to the journalist who is soon covering the whole schmear -- this is New York City in one of the nuttiest-yet-somehow-believable nutshells you'll yet have viewed.

How Mr. De Felitta manages to put all this together, while finding just the right tone to guide us through some very tricky shoals is something of an amazement. In all of the five films of De Felitta's that I've so far seen -- the three narratives (Two Family House, City Island and now Rob the Mob), as well as two documentaries ('Tis Autumn: The Search for Jackie Paris and Booker's Place), what comes across most splendidly to me, at least, is the unassuming but very generous kindness on display. This is the sort of kindness that sees people for who they are, warts and all, but also allows for the possibility of growth and change. I doubt that De Felitta has ever met a character in whom he couldn't find some humanity, and he allows us to do this, too, while giving us a truly marvelous time.

At the heart of this tale, based on real happenings here in in New York City back in the 1980s, is a young couple in love who live somewhat on the shady side of the law. As played by Michael Pitt (below, left) and Nina Arianda (below, right), they are something special: think Candide and Cunégonde, had that pair lived a few centuries later -- and outside the law. These two are trusting, sweet, sexy, loving and smart in some ways, while dumb in just as many others.

How they go from robbing flower shops to Mafia social clubs, with a detour first in prison (for him) and then working for a collection agency run by the wonderful Griffin Dunne (at his best in a long while). How could these silly kids ever imagine they 'd get away with this sort of thing? But they did, and so passionate for life, love and easy money are they that they completely pull us into their crazy schemes and have us rooting for them against all logic and hope.

As the NY Post reporter who covers the story (a fine Ray Romano, above) notes, "They don't think that robbing the Mafia is really a crime. And maybe it's not." Also becoming part of this increasingly tangled web is the Mafia Don for the territory (Andy Garcia, superb, as always), his henchmen, and the ever-present Feds who have set about spying on the local mobsters. The fact that we know all this actually happened (of course, not quite in the manner pictured here) makes it much easier to sit back and chuckle -- sometimes outright howl -- at the goings-on, which De Felitta manages to keep as light-footed/light-hearted as you could want.

Rob the Mob is such a New York movie -- really, one of the most enjoyable ever, I think -- in how it shows us the workings of so many parts of the city, from its power structure to the trickle-down effect of low wages that was already making itself felt back in the 1980s. As usual De Felitta loves all his characters, and so, finally, do we. And he has cast his movie with his usual eye for credibility and surprising star power.

Ms Arianda has garnered quite an array of awards for her legitimate theater work, but so far her film roles has been relatively small and not shown her to any great advantage. Rob the Mob changes all that. The actress captures so perfectly this young woman in all her pride and passion and craziness and joy that she's simply unforgettable. Mr. Pitt matches her beautifully. Few actors can play the "dumb lug" as well as this guy, and he imbues his character with undertones of sadness and loss that make him especially moving, as well as  funny. Their chemistry together could hardly be better, and their ability to be in-the-moment at every mo-ment helps carry us along into what we know, somehow, cannot end well.

As the movie moved onwards, I found myself beginning to fear for what must happen to these kids -- who are now into things way over their heads. How would De Felitta handle this? Never fear. You could not ask for anything more beautiful or righteous than the final moments here.

You also couldn't ask for more from Mr. Garcia, either -- whose little speech to his grandson sets a moral tone we don't usually get from our Mafia Dons. Too bad, for they could learn something. Every role has been cast with a keen eye to how it looks, sounds and feels. Rob the Mob, is a "little" film, and De Felitta never tries to make it loom larger than it should. It's based on an odd, funny and sad happening that is now part of New York history. You can read about that history here: but see the movie first and experience it the way this filmmaker has chosen to tell it. I think you'll be amazed at how wonderfully he has brought it to life, and in the process turned that life into both art and entertainment of a very high order.

Rob the Mob opens here in NYC exclusively at the Angelika Film Center this Friday, March 21. In the Los Angeles area, look for the to open on March 28 at Laemmle's Monica 4-Plex. Elsewhere? I'm sure, eventually. When word-of-mouth gets out on this one, it should soon be playing everywhere.


NOTE: This interview contains one big spoiler. 
So, please: see the movie first, then come back to the post.

TrustMovies got the chance to have a phone chat with director Raymond De Felitta (shown at left) last week, and tried to make the most of his few minutes. The result is below, with TM in boldface, De Felitta in standard type:

A certain sort of kindness marks all your films. That’s what I get out of them anyway. No matter how badly some people behave, it’s the kindness that’s left behind when it’s all over. And this is not handled in any overly sentimental manner, either.

What I am always trying to find as writer or documentarian or whatever I am at the moment is -- What’s the motive? What makes us human? What makes us act out, do stupid or cruel things. If there is a key to life, it’s why do we do this, and it’s up to us to examine this. I am never interested in people who are plainly good or evil or heroic or whatever. We’re all flawed and a little bit of everything. It’s what makes somebody screwed up that interests me because it’s this that makes somebody interesting.

How great it is to finally see Nina Arianda in a starring movie role! How did this come about?

The first person we sent the script to was Michael Pitt. Then a long time went by. The people who were financing, they send you this list of actors, often big names they want to see in the leads. You waste a lot of time trying to bring in those people. From the beginning, Michael always said, This movie really lives or dies if you believe in these two characters. This is what’s going to make the movie good.

Pitt is a smart guy. He was absolutely right. He’s a very good actor, too. And you really do believe in these two.

When you don’t get what you think you want, your work around this. So we cut the budget that had extra money for a “star” and went to the financiers and told them this: The best young actress around is Nina Arianda. When she responded to the script, we stood firm that this is who we want because she’s gonna make it different. Otherwise this could easily become just another mob movie. Once we got everyone behind it, we were set.

While watching the movie, as wonderful as it was, I had worries for the ending. We know it has got to end badly somehow, so how will the filmmaker manage this? That's what I kept thinking: How can this come to something real but also be somehow appropriate and right?

I knew that that seeing them get murdered was going to slam things. From the basic filmmaking POV, I don’t have the money or time to be a whole lot better and do the all flashy Bonnie & Clyde kind of thing. Also, I didn’t want to end with that. The point was that they did what they were supposed to do in order to accomplish their bizarre goals. What’s impor-tant is that they die loving each other. So leave them in each others arms. Let’s go out with that. It was a very positive kind of film collaboration, too. My DP (Chris Norr) and production designer (Carlos Menéndez) and I all really talked about this. What can do that would be special?

And you sure did it. Your ending left me on air and feeling about the whole story exactly as I should. My favorite part in a way is that wonderful office where the pair worked, with Griffin Dunne playing their boss. He is amazing. 

He is a wonderfully funny actor!

The atmosphere and interplay in that office was so spontaneous and funny and real. And yet these were the kind of scenes I’ve never encountered in a movie before. Not the way it plays out here. Do you let your actors improvise?

Everything is written, but I always tell actors, If it’s gonna come out of your mouth another way, let it come! I love giving actors the freedom to become their characters. Getting the emotion right and the point across is as important as getting the words right. More so.

Can we talk a bit about Andy Garcia’s gravity! Was that Mafia character maybe a little more civilized and caring that the usual? His wonderful explanation to his grandson grounds the movie in some ways.

He’s a composite character. He’s not exactly the guy who went to prison. We developed a character from the ground up for Andy. We and he wanted to find something new. He didn’t want to play just another mob movie character. As I’ve gotten to know him ovor the past 4-5 years, he’s very empathetic, with a deep love for family, and he has his own kind of sadness. Very Cuban. He has his own weight that he carries. So we wanted to try something different: Let’s show the Mafia Don we’ve never seen before.

Well, you did it. What’s next for you?

I actually thought I was going to make a movie before this one called Married and Cheating: a kind of middle-aged souffle of marriage and its crises. I wanted to write one of those serial scripts where different characters are doing different things that all finally come together. These movies usually have a couple of plot strands that don’t pan out. My challenge was to have a movie where it all comes together. That’s what I hope to do next.

We get the word from the publicist that our time is up. So we thanks Mr. De Felitta, who, with Rob the Mob has just taken the next step in a career that’s so far gone nowhere but up.

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