Not many movies in our countdown can be described as endearing. If you’re looking for an endearing, wait to pick up The Ultimate Book of Romantic Comedies—which we certainly won’t be writing.
But Things Change, an unlikely buddy flick with subplots of bribery, mistaken identity and double-crossing, is also a feel-good yarn—and not just in comparison to Scarface. It’s a leisurely paced, plot-turning charmer about two guys who pull off a great con, precisely because they have no intention of pulling off a con.
Don Ameche stars as Gino Gotto, a sweet-tempered octogenarian shoeshine man who is a doppelgänger for a Chicago mobster fingered for murder. Gino is taken before the local crime chief and offered a deal—if he steps in to take the bogus rap and serves a three-year prison term, the appreciative bad guys will reward him with anything he wants.
“You must have a dream now,” suggests mob chief Mr. Green (Mike Nussbaum). “What is that dream?”
“A boat,” says Gino, with a heavy Southern Italian accent. “A fishing boat. In Sicily.”
“In three years, you can have that boat,” says Mr. Green. “But if you stay in the shoe store, what will you have in three years?”
And so the deal is struck. Gino is assigned a syndicate babysitter who must park him in a hotel for a few days, help him memorize the lines of his false confession (“I shoota the no good summa bitch”), and deliver him to the courthouse the following Monday.
Problem is, the job is given to a low-level screw-up named Jerry (Joe Mantegna), whose current responsibilities center on washing the dishes and taking abuse from his colleagues (“Hey Cinderella, I hear you really bollixed up that last job.”).
Thus begins the buddy caper. Jerry takes an immediate liking to the guileless old man. In a plot device reminiscent of Jack Nicholson’s The Last Detail, he decides the soon-to-be prisoner needs one last fling. So they fly out to Lake Tahoe for the weekend.
The plan is to keep a low profile—especially since Jerry’s already “on probation” with his bosses. But that plan goes awry as soon as they land in Nevada. A limo driver buddy (deftly played by William H. Macy) meets them at the airport and assumes that the foreign-sounding old man is big-time Mafiosi from abroad. Callow young Jerry further undermines his own secret mission by whispering to the driver that Gino is “the guy behind the guy—behind the guy.”
Soon enough, everyone in Tahoe takes Gino for the second coming of Carlo Gambino. The two visitors are comped at the hotel, given unlimited credit at the tables, and escorted to the penthouse suite with 24-hour butler service and a sunken hot tub. Even the two showgirls who join Gino and Jerry in that bubbly appear to be part of the deal.
It’s all going swimmingly until word gets to Tahoe crime boss Don Giuseppe Vincent (Robert Prosky). How can there be such an important man that the Don doesn’t know of? And what is that curious figure doing in his town? The Don summons Gino to his mountain estate, figuring he’s going to either have to welcome the old man to the family or have him taken out in a body bag.
The scene of their meeting plays out like a beautiful dance, with Don Giuseppe trying to draw out information without insulting his potentially powerful guest and Gino answering (honestly) without really saying anything. Somehow his description of shining shoes becomes a metaphor for running a crime family and the Don ends up embracing him as an equal. It’s evocative of the Peter Sellers’ film Being There, in which the simplest of souls is mistaken for Mr. Big and shielded by his naïveté and decency.
The plot turns from there. There are a few dangerous encounters, a double-cross and a lucky coin that comes to have great meaning. Plus, there’s the reward of an ending that you won’t likely see coming.
Throughout, writer-director David Mamet and cowriter Shel Silverstein play Things Change for charm and sentimentality, plus the occasional laugh. Some of the characters may act befuddled by the ruses, but you won’t be.
HIT: Don Ameche started in vaudeville as a young man. He became a star in radio, feature films, and television. At age 80, he superbly hits the mark as the simple Sicilian-born laborer thrown into extraordinary circumstances.
“I have never played a character like Gino before,” Ameche told the New York Times. “But I knew I could do it because I understand the Italian mentality. I was around Italians all during my childhood. My father was from Italy. The accent I used for Gino is totally my father’s—he had that until he died. And like Gino, he was a man of integrity, according to his standards.”
When the courtly Ameche saw that the script required him to curse, he held up the scene for a few minutes to first apologize to everyone on the set for what he was about to say.
MISS: For some reason, Mamet often directs his actors to speak with an unemotional, almost-monotone delivery. It slows everything down and occasionally steals the fun from this comic caper.
WHAT THEY WROTE AT THE TIME: “Mamet tells a fairytale for adults; a sweet, funny one about the Mafia. Joe Mantegna is wonderful in the more flashy performance, but Don Ameche steals this picture in his role as the simple man who finds himself in a world of glitz and desire. . . . Ameche’s character always answers honestly and warmly. That’s the joke of the movie—if you play it straight and decently, you can do it better than if you try to outsmart people.” Gene Siskel, Siskel & Ebert at the Movies
PIVOTAL SCENE: The meeting where Don Giuseppe tries to ascertain whether Gino is the real deal is to be savored. Watching the scene, you know what answers the Don is looking for. And you also know what the innocent Gino is saying.
Don: “It’s good to know one’s family.”
Gino: “Sure, I gotta big family.”
Don: “And still, no matter how big your family, you know all their names.”
Gino: “From the little one up.”
The beauty is that Gino keeps answering truthfully without blowing his cover. And at the end of the scene, the two men embrace as new best friends—neither really understanding what the other is truly about.
REPEATED WATCHING QUOTIENT: Worth seeing once for every 20 other gangster movies you watch, just for an escape from the mayhem.
BEST LINE: Gino: “We were gonna go fishing tomorrow. Me and Don Giuseppe.”
Jerry: “You were gonna go fishing? If Don Giuseppe finds out who you are, you were going to go fishing as the bait.”
VIOLENCE LEVEL: Virtually none. Well, one guy gets punched in the face.
“I KNOW THAT GAL”: That leggy Wheel of Fortune spinner in Tahoe? That’s 25-year-old Felicity Huffman in her cinematic debut. Many miles away from Wisteria Lane.
IF YOU LIKED THIS, YOU’LL LIKE House of Games, Mamet’s dark and twisting 1987 look at con men. No fewer than 15 members of Mamet’s troupe of stage actors—including Mantegna, Macy, and the always-edgy Ricky Jay—appear in both films.
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: Ameche starred as the title character in 1939’s The Story of Alexander Graham Bell. The film was so popular that for a decade, people used the word “Ameche” as slang for the telephone—as in, “You’re wanted on the Ameche.”
Join us as we count down the greatest gangster movies of all time — a new entry every Thursday! Click here to see what you’ve missed so far.
[Reprinted from The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies by George Anastasia and Glen Macnow. Available from Running Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2011.]
George Anastasia is a crime reporter for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and author of several books, including “Blood and Honor” which Jimmy Breslin called “the best gangster book ever written.”
Glen Macnow was a writer for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and “Detroit Free Press.” He is currently a talk-radio host on 610-WIP in Philadelphia.
George and Glen have co-authored “The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies.”