Set in Little Italy, executive-produced by Martin Scorsese, and “inspired by” a true story, The Wannabe is a solid but unexceptional addition to the growing canon of gangster movies whose mobsters aren’t glamorous, soulful antiheroes, but canny and unprincipled brutes. Not much is known about why the real Thomas and Rosemarie Uva chose to do something as risky and, not to put too fine a point on it, stupid as robbing mafia social clubs in Queens (the Daily News called them Bonnie and Clod). In last year’s Rob the Mob, Thomas is portrayed as being angry at the mob for having beaten his father when he was late with his payments on a business loan, but The Wannabe’s writer-director, Nick Sandow, shows him as motivated by a childlike obsession with the mafia in general, and John Gotti in particular. Desperate to be accepted into one of the families, this version of the man somehow convinces himself that robbing gangsters as they play cards is a good way to prove that he belongs. But then, thinking isn’t exactly his strong suit.
Played by Vincent Piazza, a slender young man whose broad forehead and round eyes give him a look of baby-faced innocence, Thomas is a minnow trying to pass as a shark, with the help of a scraggly mustache and a succession of cheap suits that are all about two sizes too big. Comically inept, he feels like a bit player even in his own life story as soon as Rosemarie (Patricia Arquette), his older, smarter, and more resourceful girlfriend and then wife, takes him in hand. Arquette is magnificent as the ferocious and emotionally volatile Rose, whose sharp, darting eyes, talon-like red nails, and penchant for leather (mirrored by the reds and blacks that dominate the film’s color palette) project danger and excitement even when she’s just sitting at a street festival, sizing Thomas up for the first time like a fresh cut of meat. Vincenzo Amato also oozes menace as a snake-hipped mobster and ex-boyfriend of Rose’s, while Michael Imperioli and Sandow provide a welcome dose of savvy sanity as Thomas and Rose’s long-suffering brothers, respectively. But with nothing else nearly as electric as Arquette’s performance to focus on while Thomas and Rose ricochet from one boneheaded, depressing escapade to another, you may start to feel as eager as the mobsters they’re tormenting to get rid already of these babbos.
Zooey Deschanel’s wide-eyed, doll-like gaze personifies Zachary Sluser’s The Driftless Area, a self-consciously quirky, slightly otherworldly tale whose eagerness to win audiences over with whimsy only succeeds at keeping us at arm’s length. Deschanel plays Stella, the girlish femme fatale who sets in motion a meta love-slash-revenge story in which she is saved by Pierre, a frail and dreamy young man played by Anton Yelchin. Full of knowing asides and matter-of-factly delivered mysticism, the script has a thing for announcing what’s about to happen and then playing it out with a kind of faux wonder, as if foreshadowing were a form of magic. Then there’s the “real” magic it alludes to, like the fact that Stella is apparently dead when we first meet her, and that the events set in motion by Tim Geer (Frank Langella), the mysterious man who takes her in, are intended to bring her back to life. Aubrey Plaza’s eye-rolling deadpan works well here, her world-weary rental-car salesgirl providing a welcome break from the mysticism, but every time Alia Shawkat is on screen as Pierre’s best friend, her earthy realism upsets the rhythm, throwing the story’s twee tendencies into sharp and unflattering relief.
Like Cake, Meadowland takes a slow, painfully close look at the effects of a parent losing a child. But if the Jennifer Aniston vehicle, an ultimately unconvincing simulacrum of human behavior, was a Twinkie, Meadowland is a pretty good cupcake. After Sarah (Olivia Wilde) and Phil (Luke Wilson) lose their young son (he disappears from a gas station restroom in the first couple minutes of the movie), they roll off their emotional rails in slow motion, Phil so quietly that you know that it’s happening and Sarah by first folding further and further into herself, then exploding out with increasingly wild and risky behavior, seemingly oblivious to all social mores. Wilde’s flat cheekbones and thin, hunched shoulders emphasize her vulnerability, and director-cinematographer Reed Morano keeps us trapped in her pain with the help of a camera that cleaves so close that it sometimes shows only part of a head or body, shallow depth of field often narrowing the focus even more. Phil’s pain feels far less tangible than Sarah’s, the pace sometimes slows from deliberate to draggy, and the too-predictable ending involves a somewhat labored metaphor, but the film is a credible and sensitive portrayal of crippling grief.
The Tribeca Film Festival runs from April 15—26.