When the poster for Little Italy, a rom-com featuring Emma Roberts and Hayden Christensen, was found in the depths of Reddit back in May, people thought it was a joke — this movie simply looked too goofy to be real. Then, when the trailer was released two months later, it was confirmed that this was an actual movie, one that looked like a cheesy rip-off of My Big Fat Greek Wedding. After the internet had a field day making fun of these promotional materials, Little Italy seemed to vanish into thin air.
But the movie did, in fact, get a very small release in late August. And now that it’s available on demand, I’m here to tell you that it is actually much worse than anyone could have ever imagined.
Directed by Donald Petrie (Miss Congeniality, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days), Little Italy tells the story of Nikki and Leo, played by Roberts and Christensen, and the love that blossoms between them despite the fact that their families own rival pizzerias. On the surface, Little Italy looks like a somewhat tolerable made-for-TV movie. Instead, it’s a sad Romeo and Juliet adaptation riddled with unnecessary pizza references (who knew this would ever be a problem?), cliches, and — surprise! — racist stereotypes. Add in a weird subplot involving Nikki and Leo’s grandparents (they fall in love, too) and a couple of lewd characters, and you’ve got yourself a movie that belongs in an era when “My Humps” by the Black Eyed Peas topped the charts and Hillary Duff was rocking crimped hair in Lizzie McGuire.
Let’s begin with the Italian cliches. Generally, movies about Italians (Moonstruck) or movies set in Italy (Call Me By Your Name) have a couple of nods to the country’s culinary landscape, but it tends to be more visual because a) food looks good and b) in a well-written movie, the characters have more important things to discuss than pizza — no disrespect to pizza. Five minutes into Little Italy and you have one-liners about treating pizza dough like “it’s a beautiful lady” and how you should “squeeze the love out of every tomato as if it were the last.” There’s also this gross comparison: “A good man is the meal you wanna eat every night,” as well as a line about hitting someone over the head with a piece of prosciutto — all essentials in a movie about Italians, obviously.
To be fair, there is a scene where Nikki’s parents throw her a “welcome home” barbecue and there are no pizzas in sight, but her mother shows up with a box of cannoli, so it’s like pizza’s there in spirit. And can you guess Leo’s dream job? To open his own pizzeria, called “Pizza Organica,” with a menu that focuses on paper-thin, square slices topped with organic ingredients. This sounds like a joke, but it’s not. By the end of the movie, Leo follows through with his dream and opens Pizza Organica, where he tops his paper-thin pizzas with “weird” ingredients like figs, despite his father’s disapproval.
A movie that leans this heavily on cliches and stereotypes is like a bland dish. You can only add so much salt before you realize there’s no rescuing it.
All of this is bad enough, but the secondary characters are a dumpster fire that’s painful to watch. Even if you come into Little Italy primed with the knowledge that it is, in fact, racist (only some reviews have mentioned this essential-seeming detail), the movie is more racist than you’d expect.
First, there’s Leo’s roommate, Luigi. Luigi (played by Canadian actor Andrew Phung, who is of Vietnamese and Chinese descent) is actually a Chinese man named Lee Zhao Ping. Luigi embodies the costume of Italian stereotype — walking around in an A-shirt and gold chains, with his hair slicked back — because after his father threw him out of the house for being gay, he found a community in Little Italy. Luigi explains, “When I was Lee Zhao Ping, I was an outcast. When I became Luigi, everyone accepted me.”
There’s an irony to this, which you don’t realize until you watch the movie a second time (note: you shouldn’t do this — save yourselves!). Earlier in the film, Leo tells his father that he has to work a shift at Luigi’s bar instead of his family’s pizzeria, to which his father responds, “You oughta be working here, not tending the bar over in that dive for that Luigi character. He’s no Neapolitan.” Luigi’s character is supposed to suggest community is where you find it, but Leo’s father pushes hard against this, and no thoughtfulness or point comes out of it on the viewer’s end.
Even worse is how the film treats its two Indian characters. The rivaling pizzerias each employ an Indian worker: Jogi and Jessie. These two characters exist to add comical effect to the movie, which means they’re actually terrible caricatures. When they’re not helping their bosses sabotage the rival business, Jogi and Jessie throw corny and offensive insults at one another. When Jessie says to Jogi, “I’ll squash you like a malaria mosquito in Mumbai,” he responds accordingly: “They say Karma is a real bitch. Are the two of you related?” Fear not because at the end of the movie, Nikki and Leo play matchmaker and set the two up because of course, Little Italy’s primary Indian residents would only be interested in one another.
The climactic scene where Nikki and Leo’s romance is revealed is the cherry on top. The two families end up at Little Italy’s only Indian restaurant, the Korma Sutra, where the two grandparents plan to announce their engagement, but none of that matters because you find yourself glued to some rather unfortunate details in the background. Not only are the walls decorated with Kama Sutra wallpaper, but there is actually a dish called the “Lustful Lotus” on the menu (also heavy on the Kama Sutra imagery), which the maitre d’ recommends guests try for dinner “and at home.”
While 2018 will forever be remembered as the year that powerful men were called out and completely canceled, it will also be remembered as the year that saw a sudden rise in representation in film, especially in the rom-com genre (Crazy Rich Asians; To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before; Love, Simon). And that’s one reason why Little Italy is so disappointing — it’s not just a garbage movie, but achieves the opposite effect from the best rom-com trends of 2018.
Not only is Crazy Rich Asians the first U.S. studio film in 25 years to have an all-Asian and Asian-American leading cast, it also used food to further explore Chinese culture and touch on themes of family love and respect. The dumpling scene where Constance Wu’s character Rachel tries to connect with Nick and the rest of his family stands out all on its own. Little Italy is a shitshow that can’t even make pizza look appealing. Just look at the extra as she bites into what appears to be a sad dollar slice:
A movie that can render pizza — one of the world’s most pleasurable foods — unappetizing achieves a particular feat. There are certain comforts in the grocery aisle’s cheap frozen pizzas, in flighty rom-coms, but watching Little Italy, ironically or not, feels like an entree that will leave you running to the bathroom.