Dress Code (dir. Joseph Pupello)

By: Adam Freed

No genre has historically exuded higher levels of testosterone than the American crime drama.  Machismo and a primal survival instinct are requisite skills when navigating the intricacies of organized crime.  Film history has long warned that men who swim in the oceans of La Cosa Nostra without a predilection for predatory dominance do not last long.  After all, it is the sensitivity of Fredo Corleone that in Coppola’s Godfather  trilogy, ultimately leads to his death on account of his familial betrayal.  Within this realm of mandatory toxic masculinity, writer Peter Panagos and director Joseph Pupello unveil a crime drama for the 21st century that both flaunts and affirms preconceived notions about masculinity in the murky depths of organized crime.  Dress Code is a duality of a film that follows central character Bobby Russo from his childhood in the 90’s, born to a bull of a father and a fawn of a mother, yet is raised into adulthood and to his inevitable future in the family business of racketeering.

Where writer Peter Panagos’ story soars is that it identifies very early that Bobby is a young man who feels most comfortable when presenting himself adorned in feminine clothing.  This realization causes a predictable tidal wave of negative reinforcement from his father Dominic, a man for whom the term “old school” seems to have been coined directly.  Despite Bobby’s maturation into a mafioso’s world under the tutelage of his beloved Uncle Rocco, no amount of teenage shame or angst deters the younger Russo from pursuing personal satisfaction through the presentation of his desired femininity.  Joseph Pupello’s Dress Code shrewdly posits audiences at a crossroads in which the bigoted views of the old world intersect with what one would hope is the embrace of contemporary levels of acceptance. Bobby Russo, and the countless others who are made to feel shame in their pursuit of happiness should only be so lucky.  The adult iteration of Bobby is played admirably by Gerard Garilli (Hard Laughter) who slyly blends the edges of his generational underworld with the desires he seeks in Bobby’s private world.  As a physical presence, Garilli is up to the intensity commanded as a miserable mafioso, but is most captivating as he unveils the seldom seen ecstasy he experiences when presenting himself within a community of like minded individuals who accept him for who he is.

Traditionalist crime drama enthusiasts are in for a rude awakening if they expect Dress Code to provide another iteration of long recycled mob film tropes.  Pupello’s insightful directorial debut kicks open the doors of discussion pertaining to long held conceptions pertaining to masculinity and self actualization.  Where the film may not be a comfortable watch for less progressive minds, it may actually grow with time into a meaningful stepping stone for many to see themselves and their hardships represented in even the most hard hearted of film genres.  Dress Code is a film that at times reveals its seams, mostly a product of budgetary restriction, but is able to overcome with its strength of concept and admirable pace.  The 21st century will long be remembered as the age of acceptance.  An era in which long held prejudices and misconceptions are replaced by a focus on shared values and similarities.  No film genre is a better candidate for this transformation than the American crime drama.

Target Score 7/10 - Screenwriter Peter Panagos and first time director Joseph Pupello have captured a daring and relevant tale of acceptance in the face of old world expectations.  Star Gerard Garilli makes a memorable name for himself in his portrayal of a young mafioso whose secrets are buried even deeper  than those of the crime family in which he is raised.      

Dress Code is available  on Tubi.