The mafia-comedy hardly seems like a new idea in 2009, we've seen it done well ("The Sopranos"), done alright ("Married to the Mob" or "Analyze This") and done badly (any number of films, "The Godson" for example) and it practically seems quite an established film subject, even a cliché one at this point. However, to fully understand "Prizzi's Honor" if you've seen some of the latter day mafia-comedies that followed it, you have to understand that at one point it was a novel idea to make a movie where mafia dons and hit men were comedic fodder.
If you approach "Prizzi's Honor" expecting it to pick up where its successors left off, you're bound to be disappointed and will likely find it slow and its jokes stale. It's important to remember that this was the first major production to take the subject matter of "The Godfather" (high-level mafia families) and satirize it. It therefore must have seemed quite clever and groundbreaking in 1985 to lampoon the bizarre behaviors and concepts of honor that "The Godfather" and all its imitators had presented to us as reality. You really can't hold "Prizzi's Honor" accountable because so many others realized there was a satirical goldmine here and exploited it until the mafia-comedy film was as cliché as the mafia film, so when approaching this movie, I tried to remember nothing like this had really been done before.
Prizzi's Honor opens with a wedding scene, which is probably a nod to "The Godfather", but it is a very weak and plodding scene by any definition and especially in comparison to the masterpiece it emulates. From there it's mostly uphill though, as Nicholson's tremendous acting is just enough to suspend disbelief as his character, the son of a high ranking mafioso, has a wacky whirlwind romance with a dashing woman he meets at the wedding, only to discover she is mixed up in scamming his own mafia family and she's actually a hired killer just as he is, but that his love for her is so strong that her background doesn't matter. Dating the enemy becomes more and more of a tightrope walk and increasingly their genuine wedded bliss seems to be interrupted by their real world jobs, which would suggest they should see each other as a threat, and both of them typically deal with threats by homicide, leading to a quite funny problem that recurs throughout the film.
The film is very quirky, since it's basically making up a new style of film there's a lot of imagination and the plot itself doesn't fall into any clichés. However, it does exploit a basketful of mafia movie clichés, from the over-the-top Brooklyn drawl that Nicholson somehow pulls off to the corpse-like appearance of the decrepit yet ruthlessly brilliant Don Corrado Prizzi. As most of its successors have just combined mafia clichés with a basic plot, "Prizzi's Honor" seems quite fresh with its complex plot and wonderfully offbeat characters.
"Prizzi's Honor" seems to have fallen by the cinematic wayside, at least, it's not on too many short lists of great films, and its lackluster IMDb rating (6.8) rates it below or alongside many works it actually paved the way for. To some extent I think it suffers from the notion that very few good "serious" films emerged from America in the 80s aside from the stuff Woody Allen was doing. While to some extent this movie does seem to reflect some of the mid-80s film-making malaise, there is a lot of very clever work being done here, and this really is a movie worth remembering.