Mystic Pizza a Tasty Film 32 Years Later

Mystic Pizza (1988)
Directed by Donald Petrie
MGM, 105 minutes, R (Off-screen sex. Really???)

A recent trip to Mystic, Connecticut inspired me to take another look at Mystic Pizza, which I hadn’t viewed in 30 years. Most of it was actually filmed in surrounding towns, but no matter. It is now remembered as Julia Roberts’ breakout role and Matt Damon’s screen debut (though his part was a small one).

The film was rated R back in 1988. That’s astounding. Who was shocked to imagine that unmarried young women would have sex? (There is no nudity.) This and other parts of Mystic Pizza are dated–check out Julia Roberts’ big-bowed dress–but there is an innocent charm to it. Grab some ‘za and watch it. Note that I called it “innocent;” take that R-rating!

The movie revolves around three young women, the Araújo sisters Kat (Annabeth Gish) and Daisy (Julia Roberts) and their good friend Jojo Barbosa (Lili Taylor). The names are Portuguese and both ethnicity and social class factor into the film. Despite the close bonds between the three, they are quite different. Kat is a Type A egghead bound for Yale in fall. She works at Mystic Pizza with Daisy and Jojo, and also works at Mystic Seaport and babysits. Despite her calm exterior, she’s is worried about being a working-class kid at Yale, where she’ll be dependent upon scholarships.

Daisy is Kat’s polar opposite–a good time party girl with a great figure but a seemingly empty head. Her mother rags on her and with reason. Daisy is tough, wild, and maybe even a bit sluttish but, as in most romantic comedies, this is more implied than explicit.

There’s nothing ambiguous about Jojo’s love of sex. She and boyfriend Bill (Vincent D’Onoforio) go at it like rabbits wherever it’s appropriate and often where’s it not. Their engagement has been so long that Bill, a blue-collar fisherman, presses Jojo to set a date. In a nice twist, he wants to make an honest woman of Jojo in a good way. Jojo has major cold feet.

Of course, all three are “good’ Catholic girls whose parents–a single mom in the Araújo sisters’ case–want the best for them, but are not exactly candidates for guardians of the year awards. That role falls to Leona (Conchita Ferrell), the owner of Mystic Pizza. She not only supports the three as if they were her own daughters, she’s as protective as an enraged lioness. Each of the three has a summer crisis. Kat finds herself falling for Tim (William Moses), a married architect whose delightful daughter Phoebe she babysits while Tim’s wife is gone for the summer. (Uh-oh!) Daisy is drawn to Charles (Adam Storke), a rich guy who may really like her but might be just slumming it with a hot Portuguese chick. And Jojo is just a mess over the entire question of marriage. Leona has her own worry: There’s a rumor that the Fireside Gourmet (Louis Turenne) is in the area. A bad restaurant review from him can cause a place to founder.

Admittedly, none of this sounds like Jane Eyre by the Sea. One might cynically cast it as a remake of Cinderella, but it’s a tad more complicated than that. It is what it is: a set of quirky romances held together by some won’t-tax-the-brain comedy and some truly poignant moments. I liked this film for two reasons. First, it makes sharp class distinctions. Along the Connecticut coast there is quite a gulf (pun intended) between the waterside mansions, Yuppie enclaves, and country club set, and those living in ranch houses who work in the shops and on the sea. Give credit to Tim Suhrstedt’s cinematography for wordlessly pushing class distinctions right before your eyes.  

What really drives Mystic Pizza is the acting. The four central female characters–and how often can I type that?–are terrific. When the film came out, it was billed Gish’s starring role. She is terrific as Kat, whom she plays with a bifurcated sense of self. On one hand she’s kind, smart, and responsible; on the other, she is vulnerable, naïve, and looking for love. In 1988, I wouldn’t have predicted that Julia Roberts would be a big star, but now I get it. She is the mistress of the “big” scene, whether it’s a comic turn, an outburst of rage, or a feet-first leap into impetuous waters. To call Lili Taylor a spitfire is descriptive, not demeaning. She was/is the kind of actress who leaves it all on the screen and her energy level makes you look for a blown gasket or two. Conchita Ferrell was also wonderful in a role that demanded subtlety one moment and brashness the next. Aside from D’Onoforio­–who depicts a guy whose honorable intentions are frustrated–the male roles won’t dazzle you; this movie puts women front and center.

Like the Fireside Gourmet, I liked what I saw and tasted. A “secret sauce” is mentioned in the film, but it’s no secret to me: Take four talented actresses, turn them loose, and they’ll transform a thin script into a seaside feast.

Rob Weir

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