The mafia, a source of inspiration for filmmakers as gifted as Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese and the lesser talents behind several recent miniseries made for television, long has deserved a direct comic hit on the big screen. Neither Jonathan Demme's funny "Married to the Mob" (1988) nor Brian DePalma's atrocious "Wise Guys" (1986) quite finished the dirty deed.
On paper, "Mafia!" seems like just the film for the hatchet job. It's a made movie, so to speak, directed and cowritten by Jim Abrahams, who teamed with David and Jerry Zucker for the spoofs "Airplane!," "The Naked Gun" and its two sequels, and "Top Secret!" Abrahams went on to helm the "Hot Shots!" pictures. The late Lloyd Bridges, who stars as clumsy organized-crime godfather Vincenzo Cortino, was an Abrahams' regular.
Bridges, a dramatic actor who made a surprisingly successful late-career switch to comedy, is funny enough as the bumbling Cortino, who as a child escaped from a murderer in the Sicilian town of Salmonella and swam his way to Ellis Island.
That sequence, told in flashback, offers a portrayal of the community's Festival of Black Olives, with a parade featuring "Jeopardy" host Alex Trebek and vendors selling "spaghetti on a stick" and other delicacies. The future mobster, stuffed inside the bowels of a donkey, intends to board the Il Pacino (get it?), packed with a space creature and other aliens bound for America. But he stumbles off the dock. The young Cortino's misadventures are continued in Depression-era New York.
Jay Mohr, a weasel in "Jerry Maguire" and a romantic good guy in "Picture Perfect," demonstrates adequately polished comic chops as Vincenzo's son Anthony, apparent heir of the family business. He manages the Peppermint Casino, where patrons are greeted by a "We love compulsive gamblers!" sign, engage in games of Chutes and Ladder and take their chances with one-armed bandits bearing the names "Lose It All" and "Blow Your Money."
The business is so successful that garbage trucks are required to haul off the dough, and some folks save on air fare by simply mailing in envelopes stuffed with cash. Anthony, in his spare time, entertains patrons by masquerading as a lip-synching Wayne Newton and a tragically klutzy David Copperfield.
Zucker, throughout, makes blatant, mildly funny jabs at Coppola's three "Godfather" movies, Scorsese's "Casino," "Forrest Gump," "Jaws," "The Exorcist," "E.T.," "Child's Play" and even "A Christmas Carol."
The jokes -- about facial hair, ethnic food, body odor and sex -- come fast and furious. Funniest are several one-off riffs, including a shot of the rarely seen mobster Don Quixote, and an introduction to the leaders of the five families, including television's The Jeffersons.
But the old, reliable formula -- a series of sight gags, verbal puns and slapstick routines attached to a loosely organized plot -- wears mighty thin. It's not a good sign when a film's funniest moments are given away in the trailer.
It's an even worse indication of a shortage of good ideas when the giant, purple children's television hero Barney is stabbed in the gut. Didn't Tom Arnold and Hugh Grant slay this joke once and for all in 1995's "Nine Months"? Is anyone laughing?