Think of any Mafia-related stereotypes you like, and there’s an excellent chance you’ll encounter them in the course of this sad, ham-fisted little ripoff of the “GoodFellas” formula. “Wannabes” is nothing but a cascade of cliches about young guys striving to escape their difficult circumstances by carving out a place for themselves in the mob. You’ll be able to predict every twist and line of dialogue eons before it actually hits the screen. You’d probably even get a solid percentage if you tried to guess the characters’ names in advance.
The picture is the brainchild of a would-be auteur, William DeMeo, who not only wrote the script and stars, but co-produced and directed, too. Presumably he had visions of a “Rocky”-style triumph in his mind, but whatever sort of lightning struck in the case of Sly Stallone isn’t likely to reappear this time around. DeMeo, whose looks suggest he would probably be very convincing playing Elias Koteas’ younger brother, has fashioned for himself the part of Angelo, a quick-tempered but–naturally, quick-witted–young man of Italian descent. Along with his younger brother Paulie (Conor Dubin), he works as a waiter in a local Brooklyn restaurant occasionally patronized by the neighborhood don Santo (Joe Viterelli) and his thugs, along with his arrogant, menacing son Vinny (Joseph D’Onofrio). Tiring of his awful job, Angelo debases his boss and soon persuades Paulie and their two buddies Dom (John Palumbo) and Pete (Daniel Margotta) to start up a small-time bookie operation. When they expand into the protection racket, however, they catch Santo’s eye. Rather than bumping them off, however, he recognizes Angelo’s talent (just as DeMeo fervently hopes that we’ll recognize his, I suppose) and folds him into the business–much to his son’s distress. As Angelo and his boys become favorites of the don, Vinny seethes, plotting their destruction. Eventually Santo falls ill–a circumstances telegraphed all too blatantly by his obesity, love of rich ethnic cuisine and periodic coughing fits–and his weakness opens the door to a final confrontation.
Through all of this, although Viterelli is–as usual–a formidable presence, seeming far more comfortable playing his customary Mafia type than he was struggling with an Irish brogue in “Shallow Hal,” and the picture is narrated by Dubin’s colorless Paulie, the universe of “Wannabes” revolves around DeMeo’s Angelo. He’s the go-getter, always glimpsing opportunity one step ahead of everybody else and showing himself the brightest, ablest fellow in sight. He even takes on all the familial responsibilities by ultimately insisting that his little brother get out of the rackets, find a nice girl and go to school instead. (If that sounds like a rehash of the Sonny and Michael Corleone saga, by the big finish you’ll find that it’s similar in more ways than one.)
In this welter of hackneyed ethnic and genre situations and characters, DeMeo stands out–at his own insistence, it would appear–but Viterelli plays his stock role decently enough, and gravelly- voiced Raymond Serra is amusingly laid-back as the boys’ Uncle Tommy, a construction boss who deplores their involvement in criminal activity and tries to keep them grounded in their late parents’ values. Everybody else has been cast, it would seem, simply because of their visual suitability for the stereotypical parts with which the script abounds, and whatever thespian efforts they undertake are hampered by the dilatory direction of DeMeo and co-helmer Charles A. Addessi, who don’t show much aptitude for pacing or composition. (Indeed, many scenes have an unfortunate Ed Wood quality to them: they look as though they were uncorrected first takes.) Shot on location, the film does capture a sense of place, but it’s not one a viewer will care to revisit after experiencing it once.
In fairness, one must point out that there’s a solitary moment in “Wannabes” that has some freshness and humor to it. It occurs in a dinner scene, during which Uncle Tommy, making small talk with Paulie’s girlfriend Tammy (Sascha Knopf), an aspiring actress, enthuses about the kind of edgy movies he goes to see every week at the nearby Angelika Theatre–a seemingly uncharacteristic pastime that shocks his nephews and the audience as well. “I like a good independent film,” he explains. If so, he wouldn’t care at all for a dreary rehash of genre cliches like this one, a vanity project if there ever was one.