Please Someone Give Toni Collette a Comedy That’s Worthy of Her Talent
Mafia Mamma has no business being even remotely as good as it is. A very goofy idea for a comedy, the film is about Kristin, a Southern California mom and wife who’s not dealing well as a recent empty-nester. But her woes don’t end there: Her bosses don’t take her seriously at work, and her husband is having an affair with their off-to-college son’s guidance counselor. Poor sad-sack Kristin hasn’t had sex in years and feels unlovable, deciding to fly to Italy for her grandfather’s funeral because, well, what else does she have going on? She doesn’t know much about her Italian family — she lost touch with them a long time ago — but there’s a surprise waiting for her. Turns out, they’re in the mafia! And she’s been selected to be the new head of this crime syndicate! How is Kristin gonna handle this predicament?!?
That the movie, which opens today, works at all is a credit to the enormous talents of Toni Collette, who plays this flighty suburbanite suddenly dealing with feuding mob families and life-or-death shootouts. Mafia Mamma wants to be a self-empowment saga, a sexy grownup love story, an occasionally gory action-comedy and a wacky character study. It doesn’t do any of these things particularly well, but Collette gives so much to the role, investing in the story’s utter dopeyness with complete conviction, that you end up rooting for her to keep this so-so flick afloat. But the bottom line is, she’s better than the movie she’s in.
Unfortunately, this isn’t a new phenomenon for Collette. It’s been nearly 30 years since the Australian actress enjoyed her breakthrough with the indie smash Muriel’s Wedding, announcing the arrival of a nuanced, fearless comedic force. Since then, Collette has been part of plenty of great films, not to mention her TV series United States of Tara, but in recent times, she’s been the lone bright spot in some drab comedies. To be sure, she can do a lot more than just be funny. (Her sole Oscar nomination was for The Sixth Sense, and she deserved one for Hereditary as well.) But as a Collette fan, I’m tired of her outclassing her material.
Ironically, perhaps Muriel’s Wedding was part of the problem. The tale of an awkward young woman who escapes into her love of ABBA and her belief that all she needs to be happy is to find someone to marry, the film allowed the relatively unknown actress to embody this touching, self-conscious character. That movie had a very delicate tonal balance — in an interview this week, Collette said, with deep affection, “It is the saddest comedy ever made” — and she managed to make the dorky, unconfident Muriel both outrageous and very real, a cuttingly accurate depiction of being unsure of yourself as you’re first starting to negotiate adulthood. Muriel’s Wedding was this strange, poignant whatsit. It launched Collette, but in some ways it would be a hard act to follow.
Since landing on Hollywood’s radar, she’s been in comedies like About a Boy, In Her Shoes and Little Miss Sunshine, often bringing an off-kilter energy to characters who feel unpredictable, lived-in, a bit odd. That tendency was only amplified on United States of Tara, her Emmy-winning Showtime series about a suburban mom with dissociative identity disorder, Collette playing the different personalities residing within Tara. Few actors can make a troubled individual both funny and sympathetic, never mocking the person’s pain but nonetheless mining what can be so vital about them. It’s not a surprise that Collette has played a lot of suburban moms: She’s very good at tapping into the quiet desperation of domesticity, especially for women who realize how stifling the roles they’ve been given are. She articulates that anxiety, rendering it bitterly funny.
Of course, her ability to weave together comedy and drama in these roles suggested she had the chops to do more serious work, although even in The Sixth Sense and Hereditary, she portrayed imperiled, tormented mothers — albeit ones who weren’t going for laughs. (And don’t forget 2020’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things, the unsettling Charlie Kaufman psychological horror movie, in which she’s a creepily chipper mom.) Still, because Collette is such a naturally funny person — watch any of her interviews if you need proof — part of me always assumed she was destined for a standout comedic career. And over the last few years, she has done some comedies. But with the exception of Knives Out, where she’s more of a supporting character, the results have been pretty disappointing.
In 2020, she made Dream Horse, a likable but forgettable sports film (based on a true story) in which a group of small-town locals pool their meager funds to back a racehorse. Last year, she was in The Estate, a dark comedy about a group of squabbling family members fighting to win their snotty matriarch’s riches after she dies. (In that film, she played the sister of Anna Faris, presenting audiences with two great comedians who Hollywood never quite figured out what to do with.)
Collette shined in both Dream Horse and The Estate, doing the feel-good thing in the former and the conniving schemer (albeit with a good heart) in the latter. Turning 51 later this year, she’s now especially great at playing individuals who have lived a lot of life — and have discovered they’re not very happy with where they ended up. These low-budget films seemed beneath her skill set, but she never played down to the material. Collette always projects a scruffy authenticity — you feel the world-weary exhaustion of her sick-of-it-all characters — and as a result, the movies benefit from the grounded believability she conveys.
So what’s funny about Mafia Mamma is that she does the exact opposite of that. Not caring one iota about “realism,” the film is zany to the nth degree, with the joke often being that deer-in-the-headlights Kristin is unaccustomed to the cutthroat world of mafia minutiae, floundering around in one madcap comedic set piece after another. There’s nothing “grounded” about Collette’s performance — instead, she lets it rip, playing Kristin as a walking freakout. The result is one of her most purely screwball roles: sexy, ridiculous, endearingly dorky, utterly unafraid. I wouldn’t say Collette is quite good enough to recommend Mafia Mamma, but she sure goes for it as this super-basic mom who finally finds a world in which she’s valued and can really feel alive — that is, if her enemies don’t have her whacked.
The movie, which Collette also produced, is clearly something she’s proud of. But I kept wishing anything else in Mafia Mamma was as good as she was in it. It’s very tempting to wonder why she wastes time with nothingburger comedies like this. But, of course, as a rule it’s silly to lament a beloved actor’s career choices. She may, in fact, be quite happy with how everything is going for her professionally — so who cares what I think? Plus, she’s always been someone who bounces around between genres and styles. (Collette was in Guillermo del Toro’s Oscar-nominated Nightmare Alley, and next year she’ll be part of Bong Joon-ho’s follow-up to Parasite, Mickey 17, so she’s doing more than fine, thank you very much.)
Nonetheless, this string of recent subpar comedies made me long for her to be in something really, truly funny. In Muriel’s Wedding, Muriel struggled to find her place in the world. Since then, the star who played her has more than made her mark in movies — but Hollywood’s inability to find Collette her next great comedy remains a huge disappointment. Thirty years after her breakthrough, it still feels like Toni Collette’s comedic brilliance is waiting to be discovered.