Overview: Tired of being typecast as silent mobsters for every acting job, a group of New York Italian extras decide to do some real acting and put on Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. They rent a theater and unwittingly become involved in the search for mob leader (and amateur thespian) Joey “Bananas” Bongano when they cast him alongside an undercover FBI agent, placed there to find the actors’ connection to the mafia. Michael Mailer Films; 2014; 97 minutes.
A Film Within A Film…: This comedy feels a little “meta,” (as the kids say) in that its cast is made up of actors who made their names playing gangsters (Michael Rispoli, of The Sopranos, not only co-wrote this movie but also plays the lead role). For most of them, this is their first comedy, and it feels like they got together to create something they don’t get the opportunity to audition for, to tell a version of their own stories, and to simply have a good time with their friends. The characters they play are doing just that: they are extras, who always get cast as “mobster #3” because they are Italian American New Yorkers who aren’t used to spoken lines or stage acting. When protagonist Nick DeMaio (Michael Rispoli) is told by his daughter’s drama teacher that you can only really be called an actor when you’ve acted on stage, Nick decides to become the artist he wants to be, and corrals his friends to help him put on Julius Caesar.
Ironic: Of course, the joke is that the theater Nick rents is also the hide-out of a mafia boss on the run from the law, who auditions and is cast as Brutus—so he and his friends actually come closest to associating with the mob when they actively try to distance themselves from that stereotype. This leads to some pretty funny scenarios (the best being “Brutus” demonstrating the appropriate way to stab Caesar).
Trying For Sentimentality: In parallel to Nick’s struggle to do some real acting, his daughter Gina auditions for her school play and gets the lead role because the drama teacher thinks Nick is a member of the mafia. Throughout the movie, the action cuts between Nick’s troupe and their rehearsals, and Gina’s experience rehearsing for Guys and Dolls. Gina’s story isn’t as compelling as Nick’s, and while Katie Stevens (of American Idol) does a pretty good job of playing a typical teenage girl, it’s hard to find any real conflict in Gina’s life with which we can identify. Her plotline doesn’t hurt this film, but it doesn’t help it much, either.
Talented Cast: There are some familiar faces in this movie—Michael Rispoli, of course, but also Annabella Sciorra, Paul Ben-Victor, Tony Sirico, and Tony Darrow. Without this experienced cast, the weaknesses in the plot structure could have become the comedy’s downfall. Their familiar faces made the story compelling, however, as we’re in on the joke when people throughout the film say, “You look really familiar…” but can’t place them except as “mobster in a mobster movie.” This carried it through some questionable writing and plot choices.
When We Know But The Characters Don’t: Friends and Romans is at its best when it’s not trying to be sentimental but instead is taking full advantage of dramatic irony. We know that the haughty guy playing Brutus is actually Joey “Bananas” Bongano. We know “Paulie” is actually an undercover FBI agent. Nick and his friends, however, have no idea, and are oblivious to every obvious giveaway as they bicker about costumes, staging, and lines. The result is a classic farce.
Overall: Friends and Romans is an enjoyable movie, well worth renting on a weekend night in.