On a rainy April afternoon, I sat down for what I was sure would be the campsterpiece of the spring cinematic season, Mafia Mamma. If you haven’t heard, Mafia Mamma stars Toni Collette as a suburban mom turned Mafia don—a logline that stands out on the film’s poster, because of how it looks and reads like it should rhyme, even though it doesn’t. Not even a slant rhyme. Surely, a snappier choice would’ve been to play “mom” off “mob” in some fashion? But, I digress.
This plot is ingenious. Of course, we should give Toni Collette a gun, and have her run around Italy as a bumbling, amateur mob boss. That’s precisely the kind of thing that most movies are missing. Avatar 2: The Way of Water would’ve been so much more engaging for someone like me, if it was titled Avatar 2: The Way of Toni Collette’s Accidental International Incidents, instead.
When the movie began—and dropped an undeniably fantastic, bold title card over a shot of Collette’s co-star, Monica Bellucci, standing among a sea of dead mob members—I thought I was in the right place. But over the course of its (inconsiderately long) runtime, I found myself asking several questions that I was not expecting to ponder when I walked in the door. Queries such as: Why? How? When will this be over? And: Is it too late for God to save us? To put it quite simply: Mafia Mamma is a disaster of epic proportions.
I usually gravitate toward those kinds of car crashes. Particularly, those starring Collette. The actress will often appear when we need her the most, turning up in a small role in a bumbling road trip comedy, or randomly sporting a questionable accent in a feel-good film about show horses. Collette’s always armed with an onscreen assurance that makes all of the bad parts fade into the background, even if only for a moment.
Unfortunately for me, and every other human on this Earth who just wants to fry their brain with slapstick nonsense, Mafia Mamma doesn’t even have enough going for it to make your frontal lobe sizzle. The film is short of everything but tired clichés, archaic humor, dreadful editing, and girlboss humor that would’ve barely passed for witty in 2005.
But that’s the thing: Watching Collette in the film, you could never tell. Surely, she must know that the material is bad—she is a producer on Mafia Mamma, after all—but she’s selling the material. It’s everything else around her that’s a disaster.
Collette’s zealousness is almost enough to crack through your better judgment. And that’s the power of Toni Collette! There’s no one quite so adept at pulling focus away from a muddled wreck as her. She’s basically a seasoned vet at damage control; the Olivia Pope of cinema. And we should celebrate her eagerness and unpredictability as a rare gem among Hollywood banality.
Those unfamiliar with Collette’s career prior to her introduction to a new generation of curious horror heads in Ari Aster’s Hereditary—solidifying her place in the Gen Z meme pantheon several times over—might have a Cher-esque question: “What’s going on with Toni Collette’s career?”
Mafia Mamma is just the latest entry in what my colleague Allegra Frank and I have been calling the “Toni Collette Funtime Era.” If someone is in their “Funtime Era,” it means that they’re an actor who has already proven her abilities in iconic roles over the years, and is now indulging in some much-deserved silliness. Think Julianne Moore from 2009 to 2013, hopping between 30 Rock, Don Jon, and Crazy, Stupid, Love, after knocking out plenty of intense fare, like the racial-tension-navigating Far From Heaven or the apocalyptic infertility drama, Children of Men.
Most actors will eventually dip into their Funtime Era at some point, but not all will be able to dip in and out of it successfully (*cough* Meryl Streep in Florence Foster Jenkins *cough*). Collette, however, seems to navigate prestige and fluff effortlessly. In the past year alone, Collette has also starred in a Prime original series called The Power, about a group of teenage girls who develop superhuman abilities; she anchored the raunchy family comedy The Estate, balancing incest jokes and odious colostomy bag gags; and she was nominated for an Emmy for her quietly brilliant work in The Staircase.
But a close read of Collette’s filmography will reveal to the uninitiated that she has always been up for jumping between genres. That restlessness is what has made her a cult-favorite actress, ever since her first leading role in the sublime 1994 film, Muriel’s Wedding. That lovely coming-of-age story was the Abba lover’s go-to long before Mamma Mia!, and paved the way for Collette to cut her teeth in quirky, smaller films like Clockwatchers and Velvet Goldmine, favorites in the queer movie canon.
Even after her breakout, Oscar-nominated role in The Sixth Sense, Collette never stopped appearing in campy, over-the-top films, like the ones on which she built the foundation of her career. But with age—and a collection of other prestigious parts, like the multiple personas she played in four seasons of United States of Tara—comes new, unfair classifications and typecasting.
While Collette has had her fair share of archetypal roles, they have been far from conventional. The beleaguered, grieving, and eventually possessed Annie Graham in Hereditary is only the most visible example. Take Fun Mom Dinner, where Collette starred alongside Molly Shannon and Bridget Everett, in a movie spotlighting lewd, girls-night-out fury. Or the twisted vision of a suffocating matriarchal grip in the surreal I’m Thinking of Ending Things. And when she’s not putting her spin on the industry’s ageist expectations, she’s popping up as carnival psychics and eccentric art dealers with badass bob wigs.
Suffice it to say, Toni Collette does not play by the rules.
And why should she? Mafia Mamma might be a trainwreck of epic proportions, but it’s signature Collette: unexpected, frenzied, and, in a way, admirable. Hear me out. There’s a good chance that Collette signed on to this schlock simply for a free Italian vacation and a check big enough to put a second pool in her vacation house, but is that any different from what male actors have been doing for decades?
Somewhere in the world, a 70-year-old actor just accepted millions of dollars to make a movie that will be so god-awful, it doesn’t even deserve to be talked about in the same sentence as Mafia Mamma. At least it’s fun to talk about all the points where Mafia Mamma went wrong. I’d rather eat dirt than attempt to do the same with a Clint Eastwood or Mel Gibson project.
Let Toni Collette keep doing these wacko roles, and I’ll watch every single one. I hope that every single dollar I spend in a theater to see her latest movie goes to funding her next home renovation. That’s part of the excitement. With Collette, you never know what you might get when you sit down with your popcorn. It could be abysmal, or it could rock your goddamn world. There are not many people I’d roll the dice on, but with Collette, I know I’m bound to get something special eventually.
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