Pillow Lips Makes Progress

3.26.2014

By Armond White

Boy toy Michael Pitt takes on machismo in Rob the Mob

With the pain of homophobic taunts still sharp in his memory, Malcolm McDowell’s venerable choreographer (based on Joffrey Ballet co-founder Gerald Arpino) in Robert Altman’s 2003 The Company, accepted a career achievement tribute without any self-pleasing, it-gets-better vanity. Instead, he stood at the podium, reached back to his working-class past and reminded the assembled well-wishers of commonplace harassment, recalling the slurs, punches and chases inflicted by “You Italian guys…”

That unforgettable movie moment came back to me while watching Raymond DeFelitta’s new film Rob the Mob. Like McDowell’s Arpino character, writer-director DeFelitta gets personal. He doesn’t simply chide his own ethnic group but, through Jonathan Fernandez’s script, summons the unexamined cultural habits that: 1. cause particular suffering for some, and 2. are dangerously celebrated by most people. Many ethnicities internalize questionable points of view, especially the homophobic macho posturing that so often defines the power hierarchy of desperately striving social classes.

This is the amazing subtext of Rob the Mob, based on the real-life story of Bronx Italian Tommy Uva (Micheal Pitt) who, remembering indignities suffered by his family’s relation to the mob, concocts a plan to get revenge by stealing from those same macho gangsters who murdered his father and set his life in turmoil. Taking on that same, self-destructive machismo, ex-con Tommy becomes a petty thief, robbing a flower shop like his father owned, and even involving his girlfriend Rosie (fabulously spunky Nina Arianda) in his crazy scheme. Rob the Mob is extraordinary for DeFelitta’s insight and for the fact of Tommy’s bad decisions being played with heartrending expressiveness by cinema’s other come-hither Pitt.

Remember Michael Pitt’s introduction to pop culture as a Gus Van Sant boy toy? His early film career was heralded in a 2001 New York Press cover story with the headline “Pillow Lips,” describing Pitt’s pouty androgynous appeal—a quality eventually used by filmmakers from John Cameron Mitchell (Hedwig and the Angry Inch), Larry Clark (Bully) to Van Sant (Last Days), and Bernardo Bertolucci (The Dreamers), who cast Pitt for his sexiness—that is, for his screen charisma as well as for his acting chops.

In the Van Sant universe, Pitt represented a tradey, top-man insolence that is catnip to both the taste and insecurities of gay social identity. But in Rob the Mob, Pitt isn’t just an overripe hunk. His pillow lips snarl as he acts out a special resentment of American social and ethnic habit. Pitt express his own and DeFelitta’s cultural ambivalence—an achievement as rare as McDowell and Altman sourcing American homophobia to its street roots. Tommy embodies the misguided male defensiveness that makes him as much a victim as his enemies.

It’s poignant to watch Tommy and Rosie as they grind and rob their way to doom. The tragedy of dumb rebels recalls the social satire of Alex Cox’s punk film Sid and Nancy. Yet, Rob the Mob cuts even deeper. DeFelitta and Pitt (who is one of the film’s producers) stay skeptical of urban trash, starting with a montage of '90s New York grime, graffiti and Dee-Lite’s “Groove is in the Heart.” DeFelitta catches how the vast influence of “you Italian guys” became part of the modern culture of celebrity and desperation whether fantasizing criminal bravado a la Scorsese’s gangster flicks or the envious emulations of hip-hop youth culture.

“I can’t get enough of Gotti!” says Rosie's debt-collector boss, an insight that GoodFellas and The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire (on which Pitt starred for two season) exploited yet failed to address but is part of what drives Tommy to madness and his own tragic, ironic end. When Tommy attacks local social clubs where unarmed wise guys hang out, he humiliates them at gunpoint: ordering them to strip, to assume unmacho sexual positions and in one instance embarrassing a guy for his “stupid fucking hair”—taunts that goes to base of ethnic and sexual humiliation.

Few recent movie characters have Tommy’s conflicts, the twisted ideas of manliness and hurt that linger in the soul like the homophobia McDowell protested in The Company. This torturous knowledge is the other side of ethnic pride (which DeFelitta also explores in uncanny mob characterizations by Andy Garcia, Michael Rispoli, and Burt Young). It looks deeper into sorrows that Pitt’s earliest gay films sought to reprove. By expanding awareness of the harm that social groups inflict among themselves, Pillow Lips makes progress.

Rob the Mob is currently playing in theaters.

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