Big Mamma’s Boy is the story of an attractive young man desperately trying to divide his time fairly between two women, and failing miserably. Familiar turf for a romantic comedy. Except in this case, one of those women is a gorgeous, successful blonde exuding intelligence and charm, while the other, armed with a fierce array of kitchen utensils, is his mother.
Not to be confused with the American Mama’s Boy or the unfortunately similar-sounding Big Momma’s House series (your ticket will not be refunded), Big Mamma’s Boy mixes its more familiar elements with a ringside view of the collision between traditional family values and a liberal social life. It’s the multicultural spin on this universal theme, rife with both cliché and insight, that boosts the film’s appeal; something that anybody living in a major Australian city could relate to on some level.
At 35 years of age, Rocco (Frank Lotito) finally realises it would be much easier to get laid if he didn’t live under the same roof as his doting Italian mother. Yielding to curfew and fielding her endless calls while he’s out dining his latest catch is just too damaging to his reputation as an upwardly mobile real estate executive, karaoke king and eligible bachelor. When he falls for Katie (Neighbours’ Holly Valance), he finally finds the courage he needs to break free of his mother’s grip and strike out on his own. Being Italian, of course, she reacts by having heart attacks, feigning illness and passive-aggressively sponging all the sympathy she can from the close-knit Italian community, which is equally unforgiving of Rocco’s sudden quest for independence. In fact, his only supporter is his boss Theo (comedian and TV actor George Kapiniaris), who relives his own youth vicariously through Rocco’s shameless antics.
How much you enjoy Big Mamma’s Boy will depend on your tolerance for feel-good romantic comedies – the film is charmingly light-hearted but incredibly formulaic. It could have been a big hit – about 25 years ago. But it’s obviously not trying to break new ground, and to a certain degree its appeal actually rests on its naïve simplicity and playful worship of cultural stereotypes, filtered through a cosy nostalgic veil. Even the bouncy soundtrack reflects this in its allusions to Nino Rota on one end of the scale and the Rat Pack on the other. You might also be thankful that it doesn’t wallow in unpleasantness like we’ve come to expect of recent romantic comedies.
However, not unlike those movies, it does try increasingly hard to get laughs, and the comical tone borders on cartoonish. The cast do their best, led by the appealing Lotitio in the roles of star, writer and producer. Carmelina Di Guglielmo, as the master chef matriarch, is convincing and sympathetic, although Holly Valance’s earthy performance is somewhat wasted on her character, who is something of a cipher – no matter how much of a prick Rocco is, she is never deterred for very long. The multicultural angle provides most of the laughs; scenes involving Rocco’s cane-wielding grandfather and gargantuan Greek neighbours are unsubtle but undeniably amusing. Homegrown Australian audiences with first-hand experience of the milieu are likely to respond enthusiastically, as the cultural observations and clichés multiply like a Catholic bloodline. But if this overbaked film were a homemade lasagne, I don’t think they’d be quite so forgiving.