Wisegal

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9-11 p.m. Saturday, March 15
Lifetime

It's not exactly breaking news that Alyssa Milano is all grown up now (she's actually 35) and bears little resemblance to the young girl who played Tony Danza's daughter for eight seasons on the ABC comedy "Who's the Boss?" But rarely has she appeared as, well, hot as she does in "Wisegal," a Lifetime original movie that -- no, wait, don't stop reading the review because I just used the "L" word.

Yes, it's a Lifetime project, which usually means two hours of predictably lame angst for a central female character who overcomes all kinds of adversity to save womanhood itself. This mob drama isn't like that. To begin with, it's engrossing, if sometimes a bit off the rails in terms of plausibility. It also offers genuinely solid performances, headed by Milano as a butt-kicking heroine (and one of the producers) along with effective work from bad-dude supreme Jason Gedrick and the ageless James Caan, who seems to speak increasingly softly as the years pile up. This is based perhaps on the theory that the more one must strain to hear a guy, the greater the menace conveyed. And damn if Caan isn't almost right.

Said to be inspired by a true story -- perhaps in the same way that reality TV shows are inspired by reality -- "Wisegal" nonetheless boasts a solid production pedigree to explain its surprising quality. Its executive producers include Joe Pistone, the former real-life FBI agent whose infiltration of the Mafia led to the 1997 Johnny Depp-Al Pacino feature "Donnie Brasco." Not that this has much in common with "Donnie." But the attempt to elevate the film above simple mob caricature is at least clear. The teleplay, which features about 70% dialogue that people actually might say to one another, was penned by accomplished TV-movie scribe Shelley Evans, who also wrote the 2006 Lifetime flick "A Girl Like Me: The Gwen Araujo Story," which earned her a GLAAD Award for top telepic.

Milano capably carries the film on her petite shoulders as Patty Montanari, a tough Brooklyn broad who is left a widowed mother of two young sons when her husband dies of cancer. She now has to provide for them with no skills to speak of and as a result immediately gets roped into selling contraband cigarettes for small-time mobsters. Fortunately (or not), she captures the wandering eye of the hunky, charming but sinister organized crime captain Frank Russo (Gedrick), who sees in Patty a nice potential arrangement: He gives her a business to run, and she eventually falls in love with his married, philandering self. Just when it looks to be going according to plan, family boss Salvatore Palmeri (Caan) sidles up to Patty and says really gently, "I want you to transport bundles of cash over the Canadian border on a regular basis, and if you do it well I won't kill you." Actually, he doesn't say exactly that, but everyone catches his drift anyway. And with three hungry mouths to feed (including her own), how can Patty refuse such an attractive offer?

It doesn't take a genius to figure out this is all going to end really, really badly. But getting there packs an unanticipated dramatic punch that doesn't fully unravel until the final act, when all sense of believability and balance pretty much evaporates.

We're inclined to overlook most of "Wisegal's" other shortcomings as nitpicky, including the fact that Patty seems way too smart and maternally responsible to lose her entire capacity to reason in this fashion. And Frank is such a vile thug that her staying with him doesn't wash, no matter his veiled threats. But again, Milano mostly makes this work, displaying a competence and charisma that show true growth in her acting.

WISEGAL
Lifetime
in association with Starz Media
Credits:
Executive producers: Daniel H. Blatt, Joseph Pistone, Leo Rossi, Anthony Melchiorri
Producers: Alyssa Milano, Terry Gould
Co-producer: Danielle McVickers
Teleplay: Shelley Evans
Director: Jerry Ciccoritti
Director of photography: Gerald Packer
Production designer: Franco de Cotiis
Editor: George Roulston
Music: John Frizzell
Casting: Stacey Rosen
Cast:
Patty Montanari: Alyssa Milano
Frank Russo: Jason Gedrick
Salvatore Palmeri: James Caan
Angie: Janet Wright
Joey: Alessandro Costantini
Young Joey: Luca Tassone
Nino: Kyle Harrington
Nino (ages 4-6): Anthony Moniz Lancione
June: Heather Hanson
Mouse: Zak Longo
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