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'Rob the Mob' almost undone by story's mafia connections

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Even in the annals of dumb crooks, Tommy and Rosemarie Uva weren't the sharpest tools in the shed. In the early 1990s, the young Queens couple decided to stick up Mafia social clubs.

In the abstract, the choice of location made sense. The clubs were filled with guys with fat wallets and even chunkier jewelry, and they didn't carry guns for fear of government raids and were not likely to call the police for help. But their plan had one obvious and ultimately fatal flaw: The Uvas were, after all, stealing from the Gambino and Colombo crime families. Fatal being the key word here.

When screenwriter Jonathan Fernandez heard of the Uva's imprudent Bonnie-and-Clyde scheme, he did something almost as rash. Rather than come at their tale as a storyteller, the former journalist approached it as a reporter.

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When a reputed crime boss was charged in 2007 with the couple's killings, Fernandez traveled from Hollywood and spent two weeks inside the U.S. District Court in Brooklyn, not far from where he grew up in New Jersey. And from Fernandez's perch in the gallery as Dominick "Skinny Dom" Pizzonia was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder, the script for "Rob the Mob" started to come together. The film opens Friday in Los Angeles.

Starring Michael Pitt ("Boardwalk Empire") and Tony-Award winning actress Nina Arianda ("Venus in Fur") as Tommy and Rosemarie, the independently financed movie was directed by "City Island" filmmaker Raymond De Felitta. The cast includes "City Island" star Andy Garcia as a mob boss more interested in cooking than crime, Ray Romano as a newspaper columnist smitten with the Uva's cheeky crime spree and Griffin Dunne as the munificent operator of a collection agency willing to hire the ex-con Tommy and his girlfriend.

The movie is playing in limited release after debuting in New York last week to strong reviews and promising box office. Like many movies made outside the studio system, it's a minor miracle that "Rob the Mob" made it this far, nearly seven years after Pizzonia was sentenced to 15 years in prison for the couple's 1992 murders.

To Fernandez, it's just the way of things in Hollywood: "Things take forever. It's the nature of the business."

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As soon as he poked into several Mafia hangouts while covering the Pizzonia trial, the screenwriter, who worked briefly as an Argentina correspondent for the Associated Press and is married to a former Los Angeles Times reporter, knew the film wasn't going to be anything like the mobster movies he admired growing up.

"It was just a bunch of old guys sitting around, playing cards, in a really drab place," Fernandez said. "It looked nothing like 'The Godfather.' I thought: 'This was fresh.'"

As they developed the screenplay, it was clear that Fernandez, De Felitta and producer William Teitler were trying to tell an anti-"GoodFellas" tale. "I was not interested in making a Mafia movie," De Felitta said. "You can't beat the good ones. I thought it was a great true crime story and it wasn't even that well-known. But it was incredibly poignant."

Instead, they aimed to tell a comedic romance, a look at a young couple whose life ended in love, not blood. "I felt that you needed to love them," De Felitta said. "But you also needed to show what obvious limitations they had. They were crazy, but they weren't bad." (For all the couple's ineptness, their robberies also netted them a secret list of organized crime hierarchies; it was so valuable that FBI agents, who were wiretapping the clubs and knew of the thieving, stole it from the Uvas and used it to take down several crime bosses).

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But as the filmmakers tried to land financing, they were repeatedly told that people weren't interested in mob movies anymore — "They're dead," was one line — even from prominent producers who said they loved the screenplay. Some even suggested they change the ending, and have the couple live, an unacceptable idea to the team.

When De Felitta couldn't land a big-name actress to star opposite Pitt, it looked as if "Rob the Mob" was dead in the water. "The project kind of languished," De Felitta said.

Rather than abandon it, the filmmakers scaled back their ambitions and reduced their budget to about $5 million and cast Arianda and Garcia, beefing up his part to help land him. With Avi Lerner's Millennium Entertainment coming in to share the production costs (Millennium is also the distributor) with some private investors, "Rob the Mob" was finally back on track.

"In a world in which studios are making the big Lego movies, writers today have to be more proactive and take more control," said Fernandez, who early in his career worked for the legendary producers Roger Corman and Dino De Laurentiis. "We ended up with a movie I'm really proud of. I couldn't be happier."

john.horn@latimes.com

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