A WAKE IN PROVIDENCE isn?t groundbreaking, isn?t particularly original, nor is it something that you?ll still be mulling over days or weeks after you?ve seen it. What this blend of comedy and drama does have is one sterling virtue that places it in a very special category. I had a great time watching it.
It?s a time-honored plot. Anthony (co-writer Vincent Pagano), a struggling actor in Hollywood is called home to Providence for his grandfather?s wake and funeral. His long term girlfriend Alissa (Victoria Rowell) decides that this would be the perfect time for her to meet Anthony?s extended Sicilian-American family. That Alissa is black, and that they?ve never heard of her, won?t be the biggest surprise during the tumultuous 24 hours that the couple spend in that strange alternate universe they find themselves in on the other side of the continent.
The script hits all the expected marks. Alissa is greeted by a series of frozen smiles by the relatives at the funeral home. The family dinner later that night is tense with the usual sprinkling of faux pas about Alissa and general family-style sniping at one another. And then it gets worse when Grandma, who is a terror even while grieving, pointedly asks Alissa what her intentions are. Kudos to director Rosario Roveto, Jr, a man with a good eye all around for heightening the overall surrealism without going overboard, who framed that sequence so that tiny, frail Grandma looms like Mount Vesuvius only more dangerous. Breakups, revelations, heart-to-hearts, and some sound advice (don?t expect anything from your family and you?ll never be disappointed) from the local bartender (Dan Lauria), round out the story pretty much the way we would expect.
Here?s why it works. While Pagano and Rowell are fine as the couple under siege, he in particular does a fine job of playing straight man to the family madness around him, they?re not the point. It?s the cornucopia of family eccentrics, playing off each other with an irresistibly loopy charm that makes it fun, and that helps considerably in keeping the audience’s good will during the dull patches This is a group that can threaten bodily harm, and probably mean it, but do so with love. Dysfunctional, but lively. The uncle for whom old age has played a nasty anatomical trick, the kid that an aunt adopted from Korea ten years ago who is more Italian than the rest of them, and the running joke concerning endlessly dim-witted brothers Louie (co-writer Billy Van Zandt) and Brunie (John Mariano) who are convinced that the mob is out to get them and act accordingly, or at least as accordingly as their challenged synapses allow. It?s Adrienne Barbeau who almost steals the show, though, as Anthony?s Aunt Lidia, the black sheep of the family who wears short skirts, red lipstick. She may spend much of the film telling them all where to go when they complain about her daughter breast-feeding in public, and pretty much the rest of the time, too, but she retains the shadow of the hurt little girl who could never quite figure out how to please her family without surrendering her own identity.
This is film about family, not to be confused with a family film. In it, desperate ex-girlfriends dress up as fruit salad to get attention, lingerie goes for wild rides, and an omnipresent, perhaps psychic cab driver (Marc DeCarlo), shares more than we want to know about how he got his girlfriend so very pregnant. Yet, for all the well-aimed blows it lands about how families make us crazy, it still has a very warm, very soft spot for these lunatics. Which is why I have a soft spot in my heart for it.