Love between equals is a gangland rarity. Tony Soprano, Michael Corleone and Henry Hill never sought partners, but instead women whose curiosity they could buy off with diamonds, furs and a McMansion.
That makes Tommy Uva (Michael Pitt) a different kind of goon.
Like the Mafiosi he grew up around, he could use a few years on a psychiatrist’s couch to get over his daddy issues. But Tommy’s life doesn’t revolve around his father, but rather his girlfriend Rosie (Nina Arianda), and their brief, dizzying, deeply stupid crime spree.
“Rob the Mob” is director Raymond De Felitta‘s love letter to Thomas and Rose Marie Uva, a real-life couple from Queens who inadvertently helped send nearly two dozen gangsters to prison in the early 90s. In this tonally uneven, but utterly gripping retelling (which deserves a much better title than the glib, inelegant one it’s stuck with), they’re a pair of amoral but lovable hedonists who lucked into a few stick-ups before being betrayed by their own folly.
To quote another famous Italian-American: Picture it — New York City, 1991. Ex-con Tommy and newly sober Rosie can’t get by on the meager salaries from their collection-agency jobs. (Rosie’s the office MVP; she’s a natural bully.) Sick of the 9 to 5, Tommy gets it into his head that he can supplement their paychecks by stealing from the local mobsters with impunity.
The weird thing is, he really can. It’s the height of the John Gotti trial. Sammy “The Bull” Gravano is spilling all sorts of Cosa Nostra secrets, like where the mid-level racketeers hang out without their guns. (Sparsely furnished dive bars, it turns out.) Even though Tommy’s reckless enough to mention his father (who was killed by the mob) by name, the Mafia needs to lie low while the entire city is enraptured by the sensationalistic details from the trial. “Eagles don’t hunt flies,” explains the capo Big Al (Andy Garcia).
With Rosie as the driver, the pair target several mobster haunts. “Tommy and Rosie” sounds a lot less lyrical than “Bonnie and Clyde” — and it’s supposed to. They’re happy to trade in glamour for giddiness.
After one heist, they fling dollar bills at each other like little girls having a pillow fight at a sleepover. Pitt and Arianda play their characters as rambunctious cartoon puppies in love, with a big red heart in one eye and a green dollar sign in the other.
“Rob the Mob” wouldn’t work without the wild, dumb optimism Tommy and Rosie fuel in each other. It’s infectious, even when it’s obvious that the fates are about to turn on them at any moment. The heady, sexual chemistry between Pitt and Arianda — along with the evocative character details in writer Jonathan Fernandez’s script — make for an utterly believable couple enchanted by their own idiot-savantry.
Pitt’s habit of sucking in his cheeks in disappointment, as if he’s constantly tasting life’s bitterness, is just one aspect of an admirably physical performance. But it’s relative newcomer Arianda who’s the standout. Her eyes are always processing three emotions at once — generally some combination of hope, greed and fear — and she’s casually heartbreaking in the moments when she’s willing herself to believe in her man, even though he’s such a yutz he thinks Waikiki is a city in China.
Tommy and Rosie’s unworldliness make for some very funny jokes at their expense, especially during the robberies themselves, each of which is hilariously inept (yet plausibly successful). But being asked to laugh at the pair becomes increasingly uncomfortable when it’s clear they’re doomed. Big Al’s patience finally runs out when Tommy comes back from a heist with something a thousand times more valuable than money or jewelry.
The pair’s routine underestimation of the Mafia leads to some incisive observations by De Felitta and Fernandez about the easy transformation of true-crime news into entertainment. Tommy and Rosie are initially horrified to find themselves being written about by a local journalist (Ray Romano), but they can’t help calling him up and mythologizing themselves as ethical thieves — stealing from the mob is a victimless crime, Rosie argues. It’s fascinating and horrifying to see how quickly money no longer suffices; their version of the good life suddenly requires fame, too.
After the fleet first two acts, “Rob the Mob” puts on a pair of cement shoes for its grand finale. An anti-government critique that comes out of nowhere also goes nowhere, and the final scene is so self-consciously stylized it might well be cut and pasted from a perfume commercial. A retroactive effort to paint the couple in heroic strokes also flops.
We’ve already met Tommy and Rosie at their human worst. They’re already glorious as they are.