Of the stories made in America, none are as prolific worldwide as mafia stories. They’re used to tell immigrant stories, crime stories, family dramas, and even comedies. You’d be hard pressed to find any genre today that doesn’t include some aspect that references The Godfather Trilogy (1972-1990), Goodfellas (1990), or The Sopranos (1999 – 2007). So how does one keep things fresh when audiences are all too familiar with the tropes, clichés, and characterizations of mafia tales? You make it personal. You make it intimate. You make it about the risks one takes in order to be their whole self. This seems to be the approach in the directorial debut for Joseph Pupello and first-time feature screenwriter Peter Panagos project, Dress Code, which is currently in limited release on the festival circuit. Dress Code starts like you expect, but once it gets going, there are enough surprises to keep you invested in the journey of our seemingly-doomed protagonist.
Bobby Russo (Gerard Garilli) never had a chance. Despite doing very well in school, his future was always pointed in one direction: the family business. Taught the rules of the mob from an early age, as an adult, he knew to keep his mouth shut, his mind straight, and his finger off the trigger. All of which was cultivated by his Uncle Rocco (Frank Osso) in an attempt to keep Bobby from ending up like Bobby’s foul-mouthed, hot-tempered father Dominic (Freddie Maas). Right as Bobby’s on the cusp of doing big things, his inability to manage a secret he’s kept for years may be the difference between life and death in a world where speaking your truth will get you killed.
The script from Panagos splits the story into two time periods which we jump between throughout the film: present day and an unspecified period in the 1990s. Via the opening, we meet adult Bobby who’s already affiliated and comfortable with his work. The opening sets the tone for what’s to come, and it’s a mish-mash of the expected racism that’s frustratingly included with most “of an age” mafia stories, as well as dialogue dripping with tropes we’ve seen time and again. It also smartly establishes the kind of person Bobby is. He’s someone who doesn’t aspire to the usual “benefits” of their lifestyle, like having an affair, but who doesn’t mind getting his hands dirty when things require it. The dialogue may be a tad rough, delivered less naturally than the audience may want, but the blocking and staging of the sequence conveys tone and setting incredibly well, encouraging the audience to take seriously the tale that’s just getting started before them. The past storyline serves a different purpose: the establishment of the characters of the world, as well as Bobby’s secret. Neither the secret nor the ways in which his worldview is shaped by the responses to it from those around him, which oscillate from outright anger to trepidatious acceptance, are things that the film holds back from us. Even though much of the dialogue in the past portion is exposition upon exposition, the timeline does a great job of maintaining focus on the interpersonal relationships that make Bobby who he is, demonstrating that Dress Code is far less interested in telling a mafia story and more of a family drama masquerading in a mobster’s outfit.
When the film focuses on the interpersonal, Dress Code separates itself, uniquely presenting a story of self-acceptance and understanding. Though the secret is, itself, not kept hidden for long, this review will not dig into what it is. That said, there’s a progressive aspect to it that harshly rubs up against the more traditional perspective of a mafia story, thereby creating the opportunity for discussion and reflection. This is the big surprise of the film and what makes it stand out from the pack. It doesn’t ever look down upon, denigrate, or otherwise dismiss Bobby, even if those around him do (or would, if they knew). It’s also the source of tension as one never knows how this secret will play into the larger exploration of family ties, failed dreams, and a world where talking without thinking can get you or someone else killed. There’s incredible weight and unpredictability to the film as a whole because of this. Garilli (Fratello) has the demanding task of maintaining vulnerability and innocence as Bobby makes his way up the ranks, while also presenting Bobby as made of the kind of iron that can handle longevity in the lifestyle. Though the amount of exposition the characters deliver often feels unwieldy and unnatural, when in the moment, Garilli is a captivating presence, making investing in Bobby easy.
For my money, the additional fascinating thing about the film as a whole comes in the form of the title: Dress Code. It’s suggestive of a uniform, of the way some higher-up has determined how one comports themselves. As the son of a clothier who, himself, is third generation clothier, the way someone dresses is part of larger perspective on what is fashion and what is fashionable, what is considered of high tastes and what is considered lowbrow. If we were to look at the 1950s or earlier, even in casual wear, most men wore slacks of some kind with denim, which, while accessible since the 17th century, did not become popular as casual wear for several decades more. The idea of how one dressed made the person has shifted so that now someone can pair denim with a nice shirt and a blazer or sport coat and be considered high fashion. The point being that the title refers as much to what someone wears as it does how they adhere to the rules of society. To try to exist outside of those rules breeds turmoil, requiring either a sudden reorganization of operational thinking (extremely difficult and unlikely) or for a person to conform to fit in. Just as the film jumps between timelines to present a whole picture of who Bobby is, so does the film explore the schism that exists within the man and the ways in which he tries to navigate the widen chasm of self.
Though the production value may not be where one might expect for a feature film, the script is full of tropes, and the dialogue is delivered in a less expected way, there’s no denying the thoughtful approach to the film as a whole. There are individual shots that speak volumes of the characters with simple staging (the first scene with young Bobby at home when we meet his parents being an evocative one) and the presentation of Bobby vis-à-vis his secret are both respectful and touching without ever being reductive. That we know the revelation of it will lead to turmoil will not prepare us for how it does — a massive plus for a drama within a well-worn subgenre.
In limited release.
Slated for screening on July 8th, 2023 during the Jersey Shore Film Festival.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.