Published Aug 22, 2018When the poster for Little Italy was unveiled earlier this summer, it was so hilariously terrible that it made a minor viral splash, with many commenters pointing out that it looks like a 2002 straight-to-DVD rom-com you'd find in the discount bin at a gas station.
It's a pleasant surprise, then, that Little Italy is not quite as cheap and awkward as its poster suggests. It tells the story of Nikki Angioli (Emma Roberts) and Leo Campo (Hayden Christensen), onetime childhood best friends and the heirs to warring pizza empires in Toronto's Little Italy neighbourhood. Their fathers were once best friends and business partners, but a falling out led to them launching competing pizzerias, kick-starting a bitter family rivalry. So, basically, Romeo and Juliet with pizza.
The family drama got so ugly that Nikki fled town five years ago to go to culinary school in London; at the behest of her British mentor Corinne (Jane Seymour), she's back in Toronto briefly to sort out some visa issues, which is how she ends up linking up with her former bestie Leo. Canadian audiences will get a kick of out shots of the CN Tower and Leo's Blue Jays jacket, and the cast includes homegrown talent including Kim's Convenience actor Andrew Phung (whose role as Luigi entertainingly explores the boundaries of cultural identity and what it means to be Italian).
Little Italy starts off shaky, as the first act is aggressively unfunny, with canned "witty" banter and over-the-top wackiness galore. At one point, a character leaps on a table, rubs a rope against his groin and yells, "My rope is knotty! Get it?! Naughty!" An invasive pat-down from a police officer is played for laughs, which comes across as extremely tone deaf in 2018. And there's a gag involving characters having a raging dance party after accidentally eating a weed-laced pizza that makes it seem like no one in the entire production has ever tried marijuana or learned the first thing about its effects.
Just as Little Italy really seems to be getting grim, it unexpectedly takes a turn for the better during its surprisingly earnest, compelling middle section. Emma Roberts is believably conflicted while wrestling with her past and future, as she is forced to prioritize between the boy next door and her career ambitions. Hayden Christensen is like the cool jock who went to your high school — he's so slick and handsome that you naturally assume he's an asshole, but he turns out to be a pretty likeable guy once you get to know him. He's not the underdog, but you're rooting for him anyway.
There's also an extremely touching romance that blossoms between the grandparents Carlo (Danny Aiello) and Franca (Andrea Martin). They have to hide their relationship from their feuding sons, as well as navigate their Catholic faith and feelings of guilt over predeceased spouses, making for a refreshing and heartfelt love story that deserves a film all of its own.
Director Donald Petrie addresses these serious themes well, so it's disappointing when the film makes a partial return to zaniness in the climax. Still, despite the many stumbles, Little Italy is a bit like pizza itself — even when it's bad, it's still pretty good.