Viewers in the indie film loop will recognize “The Wannabe,” actor-turned-director Nick Sandow’s new mob drama, as telling the same story as the dizzier, sexier “Rob the Mob.”
Both are based on the life of Tommy Uva, a delusional young Italian American whose hero is mob boss John Gotti, whose dream is to become a part of Gotti’s mob family.
But as befits a film with Martin Scorsese as a credited producer, “Wannabe” is more “King of Comedy” tragic, more sadly psychotic, than its 2014 predecessor.
Because Tommy Uva–who goes by “Thomas” here — is deep into his made-man fantasy. And there’s little funny about that.
Thomas (Vincent Piazzo of “Jersey Boys”) dresses in loud double-breasted suits and white leather shoes. He packs a piece, practices his shtick in the mirror, and hangs out in the courthouse where “The Teflon Don,” “The Hero of Ozone Park,” Gotti, is on trial. It’s 1992, and Thomas is enraged that Gotti is facing prison, furious at anyone who reports on his misdeeds — especially self-promoting “Guardian Angel” and radio vigilante Curtis Sliwa.
Thomas also hangs out in front of known Gotti haunts. Gotti’s crew knows him and barely tolerates him. But over-40 Rosie, the “Duchess of Queens,” is intrigued. And having impulse-control issues, she seduces him and is seduced by his Mafia mania. She’s into what he’s into.
And as Thomas naively tries to ingratiate himself with the Gotti mob, even schemes to buy a juror to get him acquitted and get credit for it, Rosie — who likes the cocaine and the sex — goes along for the ride. Gotti’s conviction sends them on a spiral that leads down a rabbit hole of denial and into to a string of robberies and even an attempted assassination.
“Rob the Mob” was more about the robberies, given a comical, inept amateurism and a “Bonnie & Clyde” feel. “Wannabe” is more about the mental state of its couple, attempts at interventions, and tragedy.
Here’s the biggest difference between the films. Oscar winner Patricia Arquette brings mileage, desperation and regret to Rosie, a woman who can no longer be choosy about who she beds in the back of her Taurus, if she ever was choosy.
Arquette makes a marvelous counterpoint to Piazza’s functional but foolish Thomas. Piazza doesn’t quite get across the twitchy energy you expect from this guy. Thomas is treated as a neighborhood “character,” someone always underestimated until he pulls out a gun. Guns are a great way for the dim-witted to buttress their delusions of grandeur.
Thomas/Tommy get slapped, pushed around and dismissed. Until the unmade man waves a Tech 9 or other handgun around at the “social club” card games. How d’ya like me now?
Not to belabor the comparison, but “Wannabe” lacks the breathless energy and romantic pathos of “Rob the Mob,” which paired up Michael Pitt and Nina Arianda. “Wannabe” hews more closely to the true story and avoids laughing at its anti-hero and heroine. But the characters are held at arm’s length, so our sympathies are more muted.
The different approach, the implied commentary on media-built mob worship and the presence of Arquette (“Boyhood”) make it worth your while. But as a general rule, you never want to be the second movie out on a particular piece of history. Even Scorsese’s name in the credits isn’t enough to make us forget the first film, or its virtues.
MPAA Rating:R for drug use, language, some sexuality and violence
Cast: Vincent Piazza, Patricia Arquette, Michael Imperioli, Jay Bulger
Credits: Written and directed by Nick Sandow. An eOne release.
Running time: 1:30