Thursday, September 27, 2018

Reserved Seating: LITTLE ITALY

by Adam Riske and Rob DiCristino
The review duo who wow Michelin chefs with our brick oven pizza.

Adam: Welcome to Reserved Seating. I’m Adam “The Crust” Riske.

Rob: And I’m Rob “The Sauce” DiCristino.
Adam: Our review this week is a movie Rob and I have been eagerly anticipating ever since we saw the teaser poster: it’s director Donald Petrie’s (Mystic Pizza, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Miss Congeniality) 2018 romantic comedy Little Italy starring Emma Roberts and Hayden Christensen as two Canadian-Italian millennials who go from childhood rivals to potential romantic interests. Sounds great, right? There’s a problem. Their once-inseparable families are at odds. In fact, each family runs a rival pizzaria next door to each other. Can Nicky (Roberts) and Leo (Christensen) put their love on top(pings) of their families long-lasting beef? Little Italy co-stars returning pizzaria favorite Danny Aiello, My Big Fat Greek Wedding alum Andrea Martin (of course she’s in this), Adam Ferrara, Alyssa “Paisano(?)” Milano and Jane Seymour.

People would have rented the shit out of this at Blockbuster in the early 2000s (which is when this movie feels like it came out). Little Italy is the type of movie where I used to say “It’s not technically good, but I like it.” Nowadays, I don’t want to cushion my recommendation with that apology. I really liked this movie. The cast knows what this is and they lean into it with energy and goodwill. Everyone seems to enjoy what they made (the formula, corniness, and cliches are part of the fun) and I found the whole thing very charming. I might feel differently if I were Asian. Indian and Chinese culture are done dirty in Little Italy. This movie would be perfect as half of a Predator 2, Gotti (2018), or My Big Fat Greek Wedding double bill. No other movie can make that claim. What did you think of the movie, Rob?
Rob: Little Italy is not a good movie, but it’s an outstanding Reserved Seating movie. I don’t mean that in a “let’s laugh at a bad movie” hipster ironic way; I mean it in a “let’s celebrate a movie made in good faith and purely for the fun of it” way. I knew this was an Adam & Rob movie within the first ten minutes because Little Italy goes for it. All of it. It’s awkward and lazy and cliched and cheap and offensive and earnest and funny and heartfelt and energetic and adorable. There are moments of absolutely baffling incongruity seamlessly woven into the most tried-and-true romantic comedy tropes imaginable. Well, “seamless” isn’t the right word, I suppose, but as you said, it’s all part of the fun. You’re so charmed by Christensen and Roberts playing soccer in the rain that you’re not bothered at all when the drunken bar patrons (who seem really into the game!) inexplicably go back inside after a few minutes. You’re so invested in the “Best Pizza in Little Italy” showdown that you barely notice there’s a male swimsuit contest happening at the same time, on the same stage, with zero narrative importance. Who cares? Little Italy has such sights to show you, and it’s going to do its thing whether you come along or not.

There are so many things to talk about. Here’s a list!

1. I love that the movie is unapologetically Canadian. Lots of movies are shot in Toronto, of course, but this one wears it proudly. Check out Christensen’s Blue Jays jean jacket. It’s excellent.

2. Danny Aiello stars as the Campoli family patriarch. The Campoli family owns “Vince’s Pizza,” while the Angioli family owns “Sal’s Pizza.” I repeat: This movie features Danny Aiello and a restaurant called “Sal’s” and doesn’t connect the two. What other movie has the balls to do that? Little Italy does that.
3. Leo (who has a pizza oven, an expansive rooftop herb garden, but not his own place) has been secretly nursing an idea for organic pizza. The movie treats this as both serious and revolutionary.

4. The movie ends with Andrea Martin’s Nonna Franca announcing that she’s pregnant. “Nonna” is Italian for “grandmother.” Martin is 71 years old. No explanation is given, and this plotline is never brought up again.

5. The movie keeps the origin of the Campoli/Angioli feud a secret for nearly the entire running time before revealing it as unintentionally (?) lame and ridiculous. Sure, that might be part of the point (petty family feuds often go on so long that no one even remembers how they started), but I like to think that the screenwriters kept putting off explaining it because they couldn’t come up with anything and ended up winging it.

6. After a wacky prank that finds the Campoli family arrested for serving marijuana-laced pizza (it’s a long, hilarious story), Leo is patted down by a female police officer who proceeds to openly, loudly, and ferociously molest him. This is also presented without explanation and never brought up again.

7. Nikki is set up with a foot-fetishizing funeral director who sniffs her shoes while she’s in the bathroom. This, again, is never followed-up on. He’s one-and-done.

8. There’s an amazing Godfather joke concerning gum and cannoli that is thrown away so casually that I almost missed it.

9. Speaking of which, there are a few pretty bold sex jokes that feel like they’re left over from another, raunchier screenplay draft. One involves the grandparents. Good for them.

10. There’s a semi-abandoned subplot involving Luigi (Andrew Phung), a Chinese man who’s embraced Italian culture over his own. He’s Leo’s roommate, employer, and partner in heart-shaped-pizza hijinks. There’s a nice moment where — after Leo calls him out on his heritage — Luigi explains that the “real” Luigi took him in after his parents threw him out for being gay. Leo thanks him for his honesty and helping him...reconnect with his culture? Or something? I don’t think it was made clear. He hooks up with a TSA agent later on, so that’s fun.
Again, these aren’t presented as flaws. I consider this list proof of the movie’s unwavering audacity, its commitment to our entertainment in the face of all logic, reason, and acceptable societal norms.

Adam: I think you got most of it from the oddity angle so I’ll add a few more and then talk about the two lead performances.

1. There’s a running joke about Nonna’s amazing pizza sauce and the ingredients being a mystery. Every time someone asks “What’s in the sauce?” someone says “Nonn-ya business.” It’s like I wrote the screenplay.

2. The pizzarias (at least Sal’s) says they also make lasagna, manicotti, spaghetti, baked ziti, and ravioli. I call bullshit. No one gets anything other than pizza throughout the entire movie. Speaking of which, do these two families only eat pizza? Like, how many meals per year do they eat pizza?

3. Everyone in the movie drinks Peroni, an Italian beer. I bring this up because I used to drink Peroni in college. I met a guy from Italy and asked him if he liked Peroni. He told me Peroni is Italian piss.

4. I love that this movie treats Starbucks with a sense of discovery.

5. I like the funeral parlor guy that you mentioned. He had a joke that made me laugh really hard when Emma Roberts asks him what he’s been up to and he says “I run the funeral parlor. BTW, how’s your nonna doing?”

6. There’s a montage in the second act where Christensen takes Roberts out for a day in Little Italy for him to remind her what she’s been missing. It’s set to Shawn Mendes’ “There’s Nothing Holdin’ Me Back.” Here’s the clip. It made me cry. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.
Emma Roberts and Hayden Christensen are very likable in this movie, aren’t they? I’m not totally in the bag for either actor generally, so there’s still the ability for them to surprise me and I think they acquit themselves rather nicely in Little Italy. The most important thing for a romantic comedy to do is get us to root for the couple. If we don’t like them, the movie better be hysterical or it will fall apart. I don’t think Little Italy is funny (except unintentionally), but every scene with just Roberts and Christensen is pretty sweet. I like that their characters are nice to each other most of the time (they are Canadian, after all). He’s shown to be a ladies man (flight attendant) but not a pig. She’s pretty affable, too, and her decision whether or not to get together with him isn’t about an interpersonal problem but rather which lifestyle she wants to choose. If she wants to be with him, she’ll have to compromise on her career. It’s a little annoying that the movie doesn’t require him to have to make the same sacrifice, but whaddya gonna do? Actually, on second thought, that’s really fucked up. Forget it Jake, it’s Little Italy. There are several Little Italies in Chicago. I want to go as soon as possible. Next time I’m in Philadelphia, let’s also go to Little Italy.

Rob: We’ll take a jog down 9th Street, just like Rocky. Seriously, though. What happened to the nice flight attendant with the knock-off bag? I was rooting for those kids.

Adam: She’s not a real lady! Btw...I’m a big fan of Hayden Christensen’s Italian accent. It’s so unnatural that it takes on a surreal appealing quality. He’s really gotten to be a comfortable presence on-screen for me. Emma Roberts is also getting to that place where I get what’s she’s about and it’s not just me comparing her to her aunt. I feel like I would be happier with life if I lived inside of this movie. Why is this movie Rated R?

Rob: Because of the horny cop! This world is so magical that insane characters like her are all part of the natural landscape. They just come and go! It’s incredible.

Also incredible, I’ll agree, is Christensen’s Faux Italian accent. As an Italian, I respect its part in Little Italy’s larger effort to embrace our stereotypes positively. This movie is chock-full of cartoon characters who make me feel proud of my heritage, particularly Alyssa Milano as Dora. Her performance, while certainly loud and over the top, also has a familiarity and naturalism to it that makes me think she’s channeling a crazy aunt or something. It’s all so ridiculous, and it’s all played completely straight. I especially enjoyed the opening, in which Nikki and Leo narrate footage of their childhood like it’s fucking Goodfellas. But, you know, whimsical.

I’m not sure if I’m totally there on Emma Roberts yet (we’re both fans of Nerve, but she still has a little too much performance in her performance), but I was happy to see Hayden Christensen look more comfortable on screen. I like them together. I do wish the movie hadn’t leaned on the “Why don’t they just tell each other how they feel!?” thing quite so much, though. It’s totally acceptable in a general sense (and, as you said, part of Little Italy’s unabashed embrace of familiar tropes), but I realized about halfway through that this wasn’t actually a movie about a couple whose families were preventing them from being together. It was more about Nikki’s fear of falling into the same routines and familiar boundaries to which women like her have been subjected for generations. The problem there is that Leo is actually ambitious and equally interested in breaking family traditions, so it feels odd that they’d be, well, at odds. But I get it. You’ve gotta have a movie. I was just a lot more invested in the Aiello/Martin storyline. Remember when they went to Starbucks and drank all those espressos? That’s a real scene in this movie!
Adam: Danny Aiello is bucking for Al Pacino status at Reserved Seating. That’s two movies in a row for him. If he likes this column so much, he should put a ring on it.

Remember how everyone looks older in the flashbacks than they do in the present? My top 10 list is going to be really weird this year. Little Italy will be fighting for a spot for sure. I’m glad you’re the actual critic of the two of us because it means I can write these things without repercussion. Mark Ahn for Little Italy.

Rob: Mark Ahn loud and clear. From the goddamned rooftops. It really warms my heart that we can both appreciate this weird little Movie That Could. There’s such a fine line between “good bad” and “bad good,” and it feels like more often than not, I’m starting to just put charming curiosities like Little Italy in the “good good” column. It’s heart is so in the right place that I don’t mind standing up for it. You’re rubbing off on me. Not in a Canadian police officer way, though. But close.

Wait! We didn’t mention that Little Italy has a gag reel over the credits!

Adam: I’m upset it’s not of people choking because they ate pizza too fast and it went down the wrong pipe. I’m kidding. I honestly wish I was on this set. It looked like a blast to film. What are we covering next week? It’s Scary Movie Month!

Rob: Yes it is, which means we have work to do. We’ll be back next week with our “Top Ten Scary Movies We Want To See This Scary Movie Month” extravaganza. It needs a better name, but we’ll come up with something. Until next time…

Adam: You can take Reserved Seating out of Little Italy, but you can’t take Little Italy out of Reserved Seating.

1 comment:

  1. This past Thursday I had one last movie on my AMC A-List quota for the week to burn or lose it, and decided to watch this one. Alas, I accidentally selected a new adaptation of "Little WOMEN" thinking it was "Little ITALY." Yes, I need glasses! :-(