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By Phil Hall | August 4, 2003

Imagine “The Sopranos” crashing into “La Cage Aux Folles” and you’ll have some idea what to expect in “Friends and Family,” a mild but diverting farce about misperceptions involving gays and goombas.

Stephen and Danny (Greg Lauren and Christopher Gartin) are an attractive and highly masculine New York gay couple who happen to be employed by Victor Patrizzi, a local Mafiosa (played by Tony Lo Bianco, who can barely keep a straight face here). Patrizzi views Stephen and Danny as surrogate sons; indeed, they seem more butch than the don’s real sons, who respectively aspire for careers as a chef and a clothing designer.

But unexpectedly, Stephen’s parents decide to pay a surprise visit and this creates a major problem. It has nothing to do with Stephen’s relationship with Danny–his parents know and approve. What they don’t know is who the boys are working for. Stephen created a story that he and Danny run a fabulous catering business, which pacified his parents. Especially his father, who is an FBI agent and who would be obliged to arrest the boys should he discover their real employment.

Inexplicably, Stephen and Danny gather Patrizzi’s blessing to recruit the members of the crime family to pretend to be the very gay employees of the catering business. Since these mobsters don’t know the first thing about the queer culture, a gay music critic friend of Stephen and Danny is brought in to give them a crash course in all things lavender.

You don’t need much of an imagination to know where this kind of story is going to travel. But to its credit, “Friends and Family” is cheerfully unapologetic in the barndoor-broad stereotypes that it tosses around. The Italian-American stereotypes are all here, naturally, along with the inevitable comment about Patrizzi being a “fairy godfather.” Yet some guilty pleasure can be found in watching the lumbering, hopelessly hetero mobsters trying to adapt to the swish-and-bitch mannerisms of the stereotypical homosexual. And the sequence when these mob boys get a crash course in all things queer (complete with a PowerPoint celebration of icons including Cher and Elton John) is politically incorrect to the point of subversive hilarity.

The film also carries a cumbersome subplot involving the don’s daughter marrying the son of a Midwest WASP couple who run a right-wing militia. This idea belongs in another movie, although the casting of the decidedly non-WASPish Tovah Feldshuh as the militia leader is appealingly quirky. More casting cheer is due for the decision to bring soprano Anna Maria Alberghetti back to the screen as the matriarch of the Patrizzi family; where has she been all these years and why don’t we see more of her in movies? And while Greg Lauren and Christopher Gartin are appropriately hunky to play the gay hitmen, it seems more than a little odd that their characters are barely allowed to show any genuine emotion towards each other. Director Kristen Coury is constantly posing them in a manner that suggests they are buddies or brothers rather than lovers, and this makes no sense given the context of the film.

One unintentionally funny aspect to “Friends and Family” is a performance that is so damn awful that is becomes fascinating. Someone named Danny Mastrogiorgio is cast as the godfather’s culinary-inspired son. I don’t know whose boyfriend or brother-in-law this guy is, but Mastrogiorgio is so bereft of talent that his presence here gives the film more laughs than it planned. Perhaps the director told him to find inspiration in 1950s B-grade robot movies, as Mastrogiorgio clomps through his scenes with blocky indifference to grace and physical style while spilling his lines out in a mechanical monotone that sounds like an electric razor attempting speech. Whether he is trying to feign sleep or describe the basics of kitchen protocol or even just ask a simple question to his sympathetic castmates, Mastrogiorgio’s incompetence is so deep that his bumbling presence becomes weirdly endearing, not unlike Sofia Coppola’s disastrous performance in her father’s opus “The Godfather Part III.” Mastrogiorgio should ultimately inspire all would-be actors who come to “Friends and Family”–because if someone like him can get into movies, then anyone can!

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