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Michael Pitt in Rob the Mob

movie review

Ebiri on Rob the Mob, a Surprisingly Human Crime Caper

For a few months in 1992, Thomas and Rosemarie Uva struck a combination of disbelief, annoyance, and even a little terror in the hearts of New York’s underworld as they held up a series of social clubs belonging to the Gambino and Bonnano crime families. She’d wait in the car, while he ran in with an Uzi and robbed and humiliated the wiseguys inside, reportedly messing with his victims’ hair and making them drop their pants. In the grand scheme of mafia-related atrocities, Tommy and Rosemarie’s antics were relatively minor, but they make an ideal subject for director Raymond De Felitta, who likes modest tales told in miniature, life-size stories that betray deeper, bigger issues at play. Rob the Mob is his version of a mafia epic crossed with a lovers-on-the-run movie — a romance about two down-and-outers that reveals the workings of a whole citywide ecosystem of crime and punishment.

As De Felitta and screenwriter Jonathan Fernandez imagine him, Tommy (Michael Pitt) is dim and impulsive, but also resourceful. Released from prison after serving 18 months for a botched flower-store holdup, he joins the collection agency where his girlfriend Rosemarie (Nina Arianda) works and is soon doling out advice over the phone on how to avoid paying the bills. Unable to hold down a real job, he’s a hood at heart who grew up under the long shadow of the mob, haunted by the way these dirtbags treated his father back in the day. He gets the bright idea of holding up old-school mafia social clubs — those long, half-submerged ground-level bars where wiseguys come to drink and play cards — after wandering into the John Gotti trial and hearing chief witness Sammy the Bull reveal that there are never guns present in these places. “Wiseguys and guns, bad, dangerous combination,” Sammy says, and you can all but see the lightbulb appear above Tommy’s head.

And so, Tommy gets himself an Uzi and wanders into one such establishment, knowing that the folks inside are unarmed and also unlikely to go to the cops. His very ineptitude turns out to be his most effective weapon. Inexperienced with a submachine gun, he keeps accidentally firing all over the place, prompting the small army of mobsters inside to quickly pony up their cash, their jewelry, and their dignity. So, is Rob the Mob a comedy? Not really. De Felitta — a New York director who has made small, lovely indies like City Island, Two Family House, and the powerful documentary Booker’s Palace — tends to err on the side of human frailty and clumsiness, even in his dramas. Nobody in this movie knows exactly what they’re doing, which feels closer to the way the real world works.

The only character in the film who seems to have some real control over his surroundings is Big Al (Andy Garcia), a mob chieftain who uses a meat store as his front, but even he is graced by De Felitta and Fernandez’s generosity: When a lieutenant comes to ask him what they should do about the social club robberies, Big Al motions to a bowl of mostly eaten pasta sauce. Because his place is bugged, he quietly writes “FIND” in the sauce with his finger. The lieutenant writes his response, a question: “KILL?” Big Al shakes his head. “Eagles don’t hunt flies, they scare them.” It’s a nicely cinematic little exchange, and a strangely human one. Imagine how any other filmmaker would have staged that potentially ominous scene, and you start to get at the heart of what makes De Felitta so special. Rob the Mob is filled with little moments like these.

It’s also filled with great performances. As Rosemarie, Nina Arianda is something of a revelation — both flighty and grounded, adoring yet skeptical. When Tommy goes for his first stickup, she recognizes what he’s intending to use as a bag: “Those are our new bedsheets!” she yells. “It’s a pillowcase,” he responds, puzzled. “Yeah,” she says, “but it’s part of a set.” It’s a funny line, but she plays it with just the right amount of hurt; more than a gag, it’s a wasted dream of middle-class life.

For his part, Michael Pitt displays a surprising amount of anger and vitality. He’s tended to be hit or miss in the past, as he’s generally not a high-energy actor; that can work to his advantage in brooding parts but can just as often come off as standoffishness to the material or carelessness. But in Rob the Mob, he’s convincing as an impetuous guy with inner reserves of rage and regret, and a dashing side, too. For all their fuck-ups, we never question why these two characters are still together. In these actors’ hands, ably guided by a director who deserves to be better known, this minor little crime caper becomes a very human romantic drama.

Photo: Millennium Entertainment