The strength and diversity of its cast alone sets “Friends and Family” ahead of the pack, including as it does such actors as Tony Lo Bianco, Anna Maria Alberghetti, Tovah Feldshuh, Meshach Taylor and Edward Hibbert, with Greg Lauren and Christopher Gartin as the smart, stylish gay couple around whom the story revolves. Perhaps justifiably, audiences have come to expect a certain limited scope when it comes to production values in independent films. Small, often unknown casts are the norm in these features, which tend to be shot primarily on interior sets in smaller cities or rural settings where it is always less expensive to shoot a movie. This often results in movies with the lean, even static grittiness so pervasive on the independent film festival circuit. “Friends and Family” ignores all the rules of independent filmmaking — with hilarious and touching results.
Set in contemporary Manhattan, the plot interweaves an eclectic company of characters and traces the elaborate efforts to pull off a scheme that will save a mob family’s top enforcers—gay lovers who are charming at play and ruthless in matters of business. The pair is facing a crisis resulting from the unexpected visit of Stephen’s (GREG LAUREN) parents (BETH FOWLER and FRANK PELLEGRINO), who have unwisely decided to surprise their son to celebrate his father’s birthday. Stephen’s parents, who live in Indiana, have long since accepted and embraced Danny (CHRISTOPHER GARTIN) as their son’s life partner. But the parents had always been told that Stephen and Danny ran a catering business, and would be more than a little dismayed to learn the true nature of their careers.
TONY LO BIANCO plays the Mafia godfather, Victor Patrizzi, a man with fiercely strong Italian roots and sensibilities, who finds himself justifiably reluctant to pass the family “business” over to his two less-than-enthusiastic sons, (LOU CARBONNEAU and DANNY MASTROGIORGIO) despite the non-stop pleas of his wife (ANNA MARIA ALBERGHETTI).
Jenny (REBECCA CRESKOFF), the only daughter in the Patrizzi family, has her own crisis to handle: she has secretly been dating Damon (BRIAN LANE GREEN), who was reared in Wisconsin and most definitely is not the Sicilian mate Jenny’s father would have wanted for her. At the outset of the story, Damon proposes to Jenny, she readily accepts, and they resolve that they will finally tell their respective parents about their relationship. These confessions lead to wildly diverse results. Jenny’s parents are devastated that she is not marrying a man of Sicilian descent. And Damon’s parents in rural Wisconsin (TOVAH FELDSHUH and PATRICK COLLINS) — unbeknownst to Damon — turn out to be far-right radical militia members, who journey to New York City with an agenda far beyond their son’s engagement.
At the center of the film’s lightning-paced plot are Stephen and Danny — handsome, confident, charming and alarmingly successful in their careers as Don Patrizzi’s two top enforcers. “I wish you guys were Sicilian,” he ruefully tells Stephen and Danny, acknowledging his obvious reservations about his sons assuming leadership position in the family business.
“Friends and Family’ arrives at its breathless conclusion with an extended sequence in a lavish banquet hall owned by Patrizzi. The elaborate party is in honor of Stephen’s father’s birthday and is supposedly catered by Danny and Stephen. Under Jenny’s supervision, all of the rough-around-the-edges members of the Mafia “family” have been recruited to assist in this elaborate catering charade. The burly, unrefined mobsters, assuming that the success of the ruse depends on them pretending to be gay, have enlisted a friend of Stephen and Danny (EDWARD HIBBERT) to train them to serve as “gay” waiters at the banquet. The mobsters’ bizarre and hilarious misunderstanding of what it really means to be gay provide just some of the film’s many comic high points.
The banquet brings all of the diverse characters together as worlds collide in a manner which recalls the stylish romantic farces that Hollywood produced so well during the 30s and 40s. By the time the film ends, secrets have been revealed, new romances are in bloom and close relationships have become even closer.
The filmmakers responsible for making “Friends and Family” use their limited budget to bring a remarkable degree of richness and texture into their film. Its cast of talented actors breathe life and energy into even the most minor characters, while its lush musical score (with source music ranging form Perry Como’s “Papa Loves Mambo” to Etta James’ “Something’s Gotta Hold on Me,”) help to create a very real sense of time and place for this intricately emotional story.
The film’s big-budget look is the result of careful planning and endless location scouts throughout Manhattan and its environs. Locations used in the film include Greenwich Village and Fifth Avenue across from Central Park, with Staten Island sitting in for rural Wisconsin during the scenes involving Damon’s parents and their laughable group of militia men. The sumptuous Patrizzi home in the film belongs to Barbara Rockefeller and is located on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Two former Loew’s movie palaces provided a pair of key locations: an old theater in upper Manhattan that is now used as a church was used to shoot the opera hall sequence that opens the film, while a restoration-in-progress movie house in Jersey City provided the location for the elegant banquet hall in which the film’s climax is set. Finally, the exquisite townhouse shared by Stephen and Danny was shot in the Stuyvesant-Fish House, which is owned and operated by Cooper Union, a school for the arts and architecture, located in the East Village.
All of these carefully selected elements come together in a seemingly effortless manner to tell the film's hilarious and touching story of old-fashioned love set in a distinctly modern milieu.
“Friends and Family” is a Belladonna Production directed by Kristen Coury, produced by Linda Moran, Kristen Coury and Joseph Triebwasser from an original screenplay by Triebwasser. The film stars Tony Lo Bianco, Greg Lauren, Christopher Gartin, Tovah Feldshuh, Beth Fowler, Louis Zorich, Edward Hibbert, Meshach Taylor and Anna Maria Alberghetti.
“Friends and Family” Producer Contact Information:
450 West 15th Street, Suite 602
New York, NY 10011