Recently I discovered a film, by way of my friend Dan Ozzi, called Homie Spumoni. It seemed to exist mostly as a comically janky poster on IMDB, picturing Scrubs star Donald Faison holding a salami alongside his costars in front of a blank background underneath the title. It was that combination of image plus title, Homie Spumoni, that seemed to convey, Soul Man-like, everything we’d need to know, both about the concept of this movie and the reasons it wasn’t a hit.
Homie Spumoni, allegedly released in 2006, is, as you might expect, about a black child raised as an Italian-American — “completely unaware that he is black,” according to the official synopsis. Still, this discovery raised a number of questions. Probably the main one being, why hadn’t I heard of Homie Spumoni before?
It starred, after all, Donald Faison from Scrubs, at the time a popular show smack in the middle of its 10-year run. Jamie-Lynn Sigler from the Sopranos played his love interest, hot off a show that was in the middle of its final, highly-rated and much-discussed season in turn. Playing Faison’s real parents were the legendary Paul Mooney (still appearing regularly on the then-hot Chappelle Show) and Whoopi Goldberg, back when she was still ostensibly known for comedy instead of reacting to current events on daytime TV. Joey Fatone from N-Sync played Faison’s Italian brother, and playing Faison’s black brother was Chris Rock’s brother, Tony. (To be fair, I only found out that Chris Rock had an actor brother because of this, so it seemed worth mentioning).
The film was directed by Mike Cerrone, apparently a pal of the Farrelly Brothers from Rhode Island who even co-wrote a few of their movies, including the Three Stooges and Me, Myself, And Irene. Yet beyond these easily Wikipedia-able facts, not much has been written about Homie Spumoni. If the stars have addressed it all, it’s been only in the form of a single line in an AMA (Donald Faison) or as a throwaway line in the introduction of profiles from the time that briefly list Homie Spumoni as an acting credit before moving onto other things.
An article in the Boston Globe from September 2006 mentioned the film briefly, as part of a curtain raiser for that year’s Boston Film Festival, which was debuting the film. “We wrote it as us, what would we do as Providence Italian kids, and then stuck a black guy in front of the camera,” Homie Spumoni director Mike Cerrone says in the article.
There isn’t much in the article about the movie beyond that, though it does note that the original working title was “Meatballs and Watermelon.” I suspect that was less a “working title” than an even worse title designed to make “Homie Spumoni” seem more reasonable by comparison.
Homie Spumoni was eventually released on DVD later that same year, and that seems to be the last anyone heard of it before Dan Ozzi’s semi-viral tweet from last year. In 2006, a producer of the film, Julio Caro, pled guilty to embezzling $1.5 million from his producing partner, billionaire Ron Burkle and his fund, Yucaipa Corporate Initiatives. “Los Angeles-based Yucaipa financed much of the film and was supposed to receive the proceeds of $1.5 million, but Caro allegedly diverted the funds to pay personal expenses, including his mortgage and car lease payments, according to the plea agreement,” wrote the LA Times.
Was an embezzling producer responsible for Homie Spumoni falling into obscurity? Or is that just how it goes in Hollywood, where producers are frequently shady and scores of promising projects end up in the bargain bin every year?
While perhaps not worth the price of a DVD purchase (depending how much you appreciate the fact that they made the disc look like a pizza), you can currently watch Homie Spumoni in its entirety on YouTube. Something I decided to do myself in honor of the film’s 15th anniversary.
It was apparent almost immediately why Homie Spumoni never became The Room. It just isn’t as embarrassing or as accidentally revealing. It’s not even as straightforwardly wrongheaded, like Soul Man (which had a guy in blackface on the poster) or Loqueesha (an indie about a white radio host taking on the persona of a black woman).
Again, just about every clue as to what Homie Spumoni is is right there in the title. This is a movie that is clearly intended to promote racial understanding, but also one that assumes “homie” is an understood shorthand for any black guy. Which is to say, it’s a movie about race written by a middle-aged Italian guy from Rhode Island. Some clumsiness is assumed. It’s probably funnier to consider that some of the Homie Spumoni directors’ peers ended up writing Green Book. (Two roads, diverged in front of the pork store…)
Accepting all of that, Donald Faison’s performance is, weirdly, kind of good. He does a solid impression of a dopily affable Jersey Shore guido, with just a wisp of pathos here and there. And surprisingly, there are moments of Homie Spumoni that are legitimately funny. Like in the first scene, after we watch a bassinet carrying a black baby float gently down a river in Verona, Italy, and we meet a group of bathing Italian women. The girls are asking their recently wedded friend what it’s like to be married. “Sometimes he likes to do it in the ass,” the married one tells her friends. One of whom responds “…I think I’m going to like marriage.”
It’s not that funny, but it’s surprising enough for an easy laugh, in a whoopie cushion kind of way — something the Farrelly Brothers were always pretty good at. A lot of their movies don’t really hold up for me, but I do sort of miss the days when we could accept that things could be funny because they were kind of stupid. “Stupid and funny” should be able to coexist at least as often as “smart and funny,” if not more. Thank you for coming to my TED talk.
The baby in the bassinet, of course, is Donald Faison’s character as an infant. He’s eventually found by the bathing lady and adopted by her and her husband, the anal sex enjoyer. Maria and Enzo are their names, and they name their new son Renato. Yet quickly they worry that he’ll never be accepted in Italy by the provincial Italians. “He’s charbroiled like this steak!” Enzo says, while grilling up a steak.
That’s when they make a plan to immigrate to America, “where no one is ever judged based on the color of their skin.” This scene’s mix of problematic and genuinely kinda funny/clever continues throughout the rest of the film.
We jump forward in time to Renato as a grown adult working in his father’s deli, Enzo’s, where, Renato says, he has named his “best sandwich” after his best friend. The “Guinea Pig” is the name of the sandwich, and its namesake is played by N-Sync’s Joey Fatone, your standard knuckleheaded guido with a chinstrap beard who likes to park on the sidewalk. He looks a little like Smash Mouth’s Steve Harwell.
One day in the deli, Renato meets his love interest, in the form of Ali Butterman, played by Jamie Lynn Sigler. He discovers she’s Jewish when she has to turn down his gift of a prosciutto sandwich. “You ever dated a pork-dodger before?” Joey Fatone asks Renato.
Renato somehow successfully convinces Ali that he’s Italian, but they still have to hide their relationship from Ali’s closed-minded family, on account of the Buttermans could never accept their daughter dating a Catholic. There’s also a racist Irish cop with a thick Irish accent who calls Renato “a stovepipe” and whose arrival is always accompanied by Irish flute music — a development that would be welcomed as an eerily accurate race satire in 1872. At one point, Renato says to his father, about a customer, “I dunno, pop, he had that far away Polack look on his face.”
Against all odds and yet somehow predictably, the movie ends up being probably the most racist towards Asian people. Ali’s best friend is described as Japanese, despite the character being named “Nipp Su” and played by Kira Clavell, a Canadian actress of mixed, non-Japanese heritage (previously seen in a 2002 movie called Rub & Tug). At one point, Joey Fatone takes her to a drive in, where he cuts a hole in the bottom of a popcorn tub so that she can give him a surreptitious handjob. Traditionally that trick involved sexual assault, so Homie Spumoni turning it into a method for consensual handjobs is kind of a nice twist. Homie Spumoni is sex positive!
Eventually, thanks to a newspaper article about Enzo and Renato’s deli, Renato’s birth parents show up to claim him, played by Paul Mooney and Whoopi Goldberg. They tell a ridiculous story about how they lost Renato, who was actually named Leroy, during a gondola accident on a trip to Italy that Mooney’s character had won in a contest to name a chicken sandwich. A knack for sandwich naming apparently runs in the family, you see. That’s how you do a callback.
Mooney and Goldberg, it must be said, are legitimately great together, and lots of these jokes actually work. Like when Goldberg’s character says she’d be able to recognize her son based on the webbed toes on his right foot.
“Aha! But I don’t have webbed toes on my right foot!” Renato says.
“Ah, but you did,” Enzo sighs. “We had them removed when you were a child. You were just swimming around in circles, it was so sad.”
A medium racist interlude ensues, in which Renato goes to live with his birth parents, where he tries to learn how to play basketball, how to appreciate rap music, how to enjoy soul food, etc. It’s all apparently based on the questionable notion that an Italian guy raised in New York wouldn’t know how to act black.
In the finale, Renato has to reconcile his conflicting identities and prove his love to Ali, by stealing her back from a Jewish doctor and performing a song with her at the hospital talent show (she’s a nurse). Joey Fatone and his girlfriend show up to watch the performance, and when Nipp Su stops to collect his wheelchair from the trunk, it’s at this point we learn that Joey Fatone’s character has actually been disabled this whole time. What a twist! How many other comedies have you seen that include a surprise third act wheelchair reveal?
Yes, I spent 90 minutes of my day watching a low-res version of Homie Spumoni on YouTube, and while most of the movie is pretty dumb and kind of racist, I can safely say that those 90 minutes were not wasted. I hope Warner Brothers realizes that they still own the rights to this title and decide to remake it. Roberto Begnini could direct.