Demme's `Married to the Mob'. Exploring the tacky side of the American dream

No filmmaker loves Americana more than Jonathan Demme does. Not just any kind of Americana will do, however. What he enjoys most is - well, the tacky kind.

If the colors are too loud, the music too raucous, the furniture too clunky, and the whole idea too vulgar to begin with, chances are it's right down Mr. Demme's alley.

Demme has explored the tacky side of the American dream in several films. Among the most favorably received are ``Melvin and Howard,'' his reverie on billionaire Howard Hughes's odd relationship with a gas-station attendant, and ``Something Wild,'' about a businessman's anarchic adventures with a freewheeling young woman.

Demme has also directed such offbeat documentaries as ``Stop Making Sense,'' with the Talking Heads rock group, and ``Swimming to Cambodia,'' with monologuist Spalding Gray.

``Married to the Mob'' carries on the Demme tradition with a vengeance.

This time, in fact, the characters and situations are tacky at their best moments; at other times they're crude and even violent.

The sordid side of the story is harrowing in spots, and some moviegoers may question whether this is really a comedy at all, despite the zany dialogue and broad physical humor.

Demme always sides with the good guys, though, and even the roughest parts of the action are leavened with irony.

``Married to the Mob'' isn't for all tastes. But for cinematic thrills and spills, it's quite a ride.

The heroine of the tale is Angela, a basically decent woman who's somehow gotten herself married to a rising member of the gangland establishment. Her husband is a promising young thug, and his bosses think well of him - until he crosses one of them and winds up unexpectedly dead.

The head of the local mob has always liked Angela, and now that she's a widow (courtesy of him, it so happens), he gets very friendly indeed, plying her with gifts and attention.

Angela hates the mob, though, and was on the verge of chucking her crime connections even before her husband's demise.

Determined to clean up her life at any cost, she leaves comfortable Long Island for a Manhattan slum. There she hopes to live honestly and anonymously in a working-class community that's shown (unusually for a Hollywood movie) to be racially diverse and tolerant of outsiders.

But two men have different plans for her: the boss, who won't stop dogging her trail, and an FBI man, who wants to nail her for a crime but winds up falling hopelessly in love.

Two things help ``Married to the Mob'' stand out from the crowd: its sharp acting and Demme's filmmaking skill.

Michelle Pfeiffer gives her best performance yet as our heroine; Matthew Modine, one of the most versatile young actors in Hollywood, is subtly hilarious as her FBI nemesis; and Dean Stockwell is in good form as her gangland suitor.

Demme keeps their performances cascading across the screen at top speed and surrounds them with vividly imagined details - from the appliances in an overdesigned Long Island kitchen to the colors of an impossibly decorated Miami Beach hotel.

``Married to the Mob'' was written by Barry Strugatz and Mark R. Burns. Tak Fujimoto did the striking cinematography, and David Byrne composed the score.

The movie is rated R, reflecting its intermittent violence as well as some nudity and foul language.

David Sterritt is the Monitor's film critic.

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