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Married to the Mob Is a Grim Story About Domestic Abuse
That’s not what it’s supposed to be, but…
Jonathan Demme’s “Married to the Mob,” from 1988, is supposed to be a romantic comedy. Watching it now, though, it doesn’t exactly feel funny. Instead, it’s a despairing little parable about domestic abuse and police indifference, made even bleaker by the fact that it treats its main character’s predicament like a punch line.
The character who we see pushed into a small, intimate abyss is Angela de Marco (Michelle Pfeiffer, leaning into a Jersey accent.) Angela is married to mobster Frank “The Cucumber” Demarco (Alec Baldwin), a mob hitman. Mrs. DeMarco doesn’t want to live in a house paid for by murder and thievery, and she worries about what it will do to her kid. But when she asks Frank for a divorce, he laughs at her. She seems to have no way out—until he sleeps with his boss’ girl. Tony “The Tiger” Russo (Dean Stockwell) executes Frank personally.
And that’s when Angela’s life really goes to shit.
Tony decides that with Frank gone, he’s going to make Angela his mistress. She tells him to stay away from her, gives away everything she owns, and moves into a crappy dump across town to get away from him.
But, nightmarishly, no one believes that she doesn’t want Tony. After Tony kisses her against her will, Tony’s wife, Connie (Mercedes Ruehl) blames Angela, threatens her, and stalks her. Even worse, the FBI has decided that Angela and Tony murdered Frank together. They start surveilling her too. Agent Mike Downey (Matthew Modine) even seduces her.
Again, this is all supposed to be light-hearted. The character acting is broad, the writing is snarky and dopey-hip—scenes where Tony and his retainers sing a burger joint jingle foreshadow Tarantino dialogue to come.
But what’s actually happening, if you peel away the smirking, is that Tony is sexually harassing and stalking Angela. More, patriarchy ensures that basically everyone else in her life—her friends, her lovers, her government—blames her for Tony’s abuse.
In this context, the scenes where Angela’s obviously smitten with Mike are almost unendurably cruel. We know that he not only is deceiving her, but that beneath his herky-jerk geeky cute façade, he despises her, and thinks she deserves to be lied to because she’s immoral/ manipulative/ sexual. He thinks she has no worth because Tony sexually assaulted her.
Mike does eventually realize he’s wrong, but only after Angela’s despairingly bared her soul, telling him about her mob connections and Tony’s harassment—both of which she is sure will make him think less of her, because they make her think less of herself.
But even though Mike now trusts her, his bosses do not, and they arrest her, threaten to jail her on her husband’s crimes of tax evasion and theft, and also arrest and threaten to deport her new boss at the hair salon, the one person in the entire movie who has treated her with kindness. Angela, weeping, tells the Feds they’re no different than the mob, which leads the chief FBI goon to utter what’s probably the most famous line in the film:
Oh, there's a big difference, Mrs. de Marco.The mob is run by murdering, thieving, lying, cheating psychopaths. We work for the President of the United States of America.
Obviously, the joke is that the President of the United States (Reagan, at that moment) is in fact a murdering, thieving, lying, cheating psychopath. And fair enough!
But the movie doesn’t really seem to believe its own insight. The FBI sends Angela to seduce the mass murderer who has been stalking her and sexually assaulting her. It’s essentially state sanctioned sex trafficking to her own abuser. But again the movie mostly treats it as a joke—and in fact it’s at this point that Demme mostly abandons Angela’s perspective, perhaps because he dimly realizes that only by emotionally distancing the point of view can the movie continue to function even minimally as a comedy.
In any case, for the last half hour, Tony becomes the central character, and we follow his assorted hijinks as he tries to avoid his wife and to thwart the FBI. Mike is cast in the role of bumbling but ultimately courageous and successful hero, and then somehow, when it’s all over, Angela takes him back, and it’s implied that she gets a happy ever after ending with the guy who spent most of the movie doing everything he could to help her abuser terrorize her.
In a lot of ways Married to the Mob is less a romcom than a paranoid melodrama like Gaslight—except that Married to the Mob is more totalizing. It never breaks character; it never admits that its whole plot is a mechanism to humiliate and terrify Angela. Mike is supposed to be on her side. What happens to her is supposed to be funny. It’s all good.
“Maybe everyone does deserve a second chance,” Angela says. That’s practically the last line in the movie. Spoken by a victim of abuse to one man who has abused her, it’s a suitably grim close.
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