In November of 1957, the biggest gathering of mob bosses in Mafia history took place in tiny Apalachin, New York. Every Big Name in La Cosa Nostra showed up in upstate New York — some 60 mob bosses from across the country, 100 mobsters in total.
It was so theatrical, so celebrated, such a legendary affair that many a mob movie — “The Valachi Papers” covered the real thing, “The Godfather” fictionalized a version, even “Analyze This” went there — felt the need to depict it.
Sure, it was raided by the cops and the Feds. But did you ever think about the catering? I mean, who fed them? Where’d they get all that meat, wine and pasta in the middle-of-nowhere, New York?
That’s the most promising premise wrapped up in “Mob Town,” a historically and dramatically sloppy version of the“Apalachin Conference” made on a shoestring and starring David Arquette.
Building the film around the doggedly suspicious real-life state trooper, Sgt. Ed Croswell, is earnest and well-intentioned. But Croswell (Arquette) noticing that “all the meat in town has disappeared,” bickering with his boss over “The taxpayers are paying you to pull in SPEEDING tickets!” when “I KNOW something big is going to go down, here” and treating it as a mystery he is solving might not have been the right way to go.
Because it’s the laughs that work here, the comic possibilities that beg to be explored. The actor-turned director behind the camera, Danny A. Abeckaser, seemed to get this. He directed and gave himself the role of Joseph “Joe the Barber” Barbara,the host for this “barbecue.” And his scenes, bickering with the fish market guy who keeps vetoing the fish he wants to serve (while sipping from a flash, because we all need a prop in our “big scene), bribing and cursing the meat wholesaler, show us the movie that might have been. He’s funny and they’re funny.
“The devil is in the details,” the old expression goes. “Men stumble on stones, not mountains,” Big Boss Vito Genovese (Robert Davi) growls. So if you don’t have the money to rent an estate that looks big enough to pass for the rambling, two-wing stone structure that Barbara, a Canada Dry wholesaler whose real money came from being a “made man,” if you have to make this epic mid-November meeting “a barbecue,” if you can’t hire polished actors who pop off the screen for the supporting roles, if most of your budget seems set aside to rent vintage Caddies, Chevys, trucks and coupes, then maybe you go the “Analyze This” route.
Comedy is always cheaper. And we’re a lot more forgiving of butchering history when it’s all a laugh, a promenade of F-bombs and food featuring “every goombah in the country,” and not a dramatic thriller “based on true events.”
In 1957, Sgt. Croswell first realizes there’s something fishy in this sleepy town when he pulls over a guy with a new Chevy Bel Air, a fake ID and a wad of bills he wants the trooper to have “to speed things along.” A high-priced, insulting attorney with a writ from a state court judge ends that case. “Sergeant, park ranger, WHATEVER you are, go chase some squirrels!”
But Croswell’s attention turns to this Barbara guy and his many pricey cars and “18 acre estate” (it was 53).
The script blurs the context, messing up the years Genovese was in exile in Italy (it was during WWII), but the mob wars of the day are slapped together — assassinations and botched assassinations abound.
Let’s settle this, peaceful like. Get everybody together, someplace out of the way.
As Barbara gets the word that he’s the Host on the Spot, the script meanders into the divorced Crowswell’s efforts to court the widowed mother of three (Jennifer Esposito), the clumsiness of his idiot fellow trooper (comic actor P.J. Byrne), the arguments with the patrol chief called “Lieutenant” in some scenes, “sergeant” on the phone and “Chief Lane” in the credits (James McCaffrey).
A ninety minute movie about a seminal event in Mob Wars history doesn’t need filler of this sort. And when you’ve got a capo working for Barbara who knows the price of failure will be “They ransack the house, and shoot us all, or maybe they shoot us and THEN ransack the house,” you know this is better suited for comedy.
Davi can be funny, as can Arquette. Some of the bit players, those sharing scenes with Abeckaser, are amusing. That capo is funny enough, although figuring that they’ll be slaughered with “a model Remington 870” (a Remington Model 870 shotgun) is funny for being a blown line, which neither he nor his director (who was in “Holy Rollers,” “The Iceman” and “The Irishman”) caught.
After showing a light touch in the opening pull-over scene, Arquette plays the rest of the movie straight as an arrow. Sometimes, there’s somebody funny making him the straight man in the scene, too often there isn’t.
It’s a pity they didn’t figure all this out before filming began. Because there’s no suspense to “Mob Town,” no feelings of imminent peril. The violence is all in the “mob wars” context scenes in the prologue.
And in spite of the history recited in the opening and closing titles, they didn’t have the money or the wherewithal to make this accurate enough to be dramatic.
Make it a comedy, make it about the catering, make it more an “Analyze This” sort of mob movie, then you’ve got something.
MPAA Rating: R for language throughout and some violence
Cast: David Arquette, Jennifer Esposito, Danny A. Abeckaser and Robert Davi.
Credits: Directed by Danny A. Abeckaser, script Jon Carlo, Joe Gilford. A Saban Films release.
Running time: 1:30