Sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction. That’s certainly the case in Rob the Mob, Raymond De Felitta’s jaunty, disarmingly human crime caper about Tommy and Rosemarie Uva, a real Queens couple who brazenly stuck up social clubs habited by members of two major New York crime families, and got away with it – until they didn’t.
When we first meet Tommy and Rosie, they’re embarking on an ill-advised robbery, one which will land Tommy in prison for 18 months. Immediately, the motivations behind their life of crime are clear; of course, the financial incentive is there, but there’s a heated romantic spark driving their activities forward as well. So crazy in love that they feel invincible, the two lovebirds instinctively feel that the world is theirs for the taking.
Once Tommy’s out, it’s not long before the two are scheming again, despite Rosie’s attempts to stick to the straight and narrow with an acceptable job at a collection agency. However, this time, Tommy, hot-headed though he is, has a smarter plan than just robbing flower shops; he’s discovered that mob social clubs have a no-gun policy because, as Sammy the Bull (the trial of whom Tommy sits in on) so eloquently puts it, ““Wise guys and guns – bad, dangerous combination.”
When Tommy and Rosie begin knocking over social clubs, with Tommy fumbling each robbery (but still somehow ending up on top) and Rosie serving as the world’s worst getaway driver, they attract all the wrong kinds of attention. Soon, heavy hitters in the mafia, including charismatic overlord Big Al (Andy Garcia) and nasty mob guy Sal (Michael Rispoli) are gunning for them. But even this pressure isn’t enough to shock Tommy and Rosie, blinded by sheer ambition, out of their crime spree as the heists get more dangerous and their pursuers draw closer.
Tommy and Rosie, as played by Michael Pitt and Nina Arianda, are like a modern-day Bonnie and Clyde, utterly tantalizing in their passion, stupidity and ultimate tragedy. Rob the Mob succeeds largely because of the two performers, who do justice to their protagonists, never painting them as simply dumb despite the poor judgment they often demonstrate. Jonathan Fernandez’s smart, inventive script certainly pokes fun at the duo in places, but Pitt and Arianda each present their characters as flawed yet likable people, as susceptible to greed and incompetence as the rest of us.
Pitt plays Tommy as a grimy, resourceful underdog, overflowing with anger at the way the mob treated his father years earlier. He’s not the sharpest tool in the shed (Tommy’s hilarious ineptitude with a Uzi is actually what prompts the dangerous gangsters he robs to immediately hand over their valuables), but there’s a courage and a heart to Tommy that the brooding Pitt communicates extremely well.
However, the real breakout in Rob the Mob is Arianda, who effortlessly balances Rosie’s vivacious outlook, sweet innocence and quiet intelligence. At first, Rosie is set up to be the bimbo girlfriend, and though the character definitely buys into the idea that her boyfriend is infallible, Arianda elegantly reveals layers of contemplation and apprehension hiding beneath Rosie’s bubbly exterior. Arianda’s approach to Rosie’s loudmouthed nature reminded me of Marisa Tomei’s character in My Cousin Vinny, and I don’t use that high praise lightly. Put simply, she’s a revelation.
It’s great that Pitt and Arianda both give strong performances, but what allows Rob the Mob to succeed as a crime drama, a comedy and a relationship drama all in one is how well their performances go together. Luckily, there’s genuine heat in their interactions, and I never questioned why the characters stayed together. Often, scenes focusing on their risky relationship combine warmth, humor, love and thrilling danger into a concoction that looks remarkably like real life.
Ray Romano showcases surprising dramatic depth as journalist Jerry Cardozo, who unintentionally leads the mob right to Tommy and Rosie. His heartbreaking final interaction with the pair, as he pleads with them to head south of the border, represents the finest work I’ve seen from the actor in a long time. Garcia, as mafia don Big Al, peels back stereotypes about mob bosses, playing a proud, morally comprised man who has become numb to his crimes but still retains a deeply human core, especially when it comes to his impressionable grandson (Luke Fava). It’s exceedingly rare to see a believable, three-dimensional portrayal of such a thoroughly nasty character. Also of note is Rocky actor Burt Young, who proves he can still pack a formidable punch as the ‘victim’ of one of Tommy’s hold-ups.
De Felitta and Fernandez masterfully weave together these characters (and a host of bit players) to create a film that blends Godfather-esque mob drama with a tragicomic romance in the vein of Sid and Nancy, True Romance and the actual Bonnie and Clyde. Somehow, the two prove a natural fit. The film is curiously slack in its final moments, and some of the smaller characters serve little actual purpose, but those minor quibbles aside, Rob the Mob is a smart, engrossing watch. You’ll become invested in Tommy and Rosie’s doomed romance, and you’ll wonder that two individuals so brave, foolhardy and head-over-heels in love with life itself could have ever escaped Hollywood’s grasp up until this point.
Thanks to stellar performances from Pitt and Arianda, Rob the Mob works as both a deceptively complex mafia epic and as a wildly entertaining, Bonnie and Clyde-esque romance.