“Casualties of Love: the Long Island Lolita Story” (1993)

It’s said that there are three sides to every story–yours, mine, and the truth. Sometimes, as with the  three TV movies recounting the Amy Fisher-Joey Buttafuoco scandal, those sides are so far removed from each other that one is unsure if they’re even about the same incident. Particularly in comparing Casualties of Love: the Long Island Lolita Story to last week’s Lethal Lolita, the only things the two have in common are the characters’ names, and the setting. Beyond that, despite both of them professing to be the real true story, they vary so wildly in tone and “facts” that the viewer ends up feeling a little gaslit. Did Joey put Amy up to shooting his wife? Was Amy a prostitute of her own volition? Had Joey committed statutory rape? Is blue red? Is the tortoise a shoe? When’s lunch?

Lethal Lolita may have given Amy Fisher the opportunity to tell her side of the story first, but Joey and Mary Jo Buttafuoco were allowed their rebuttal just a week later. And oh boy, it’s some premium processed cheese food. Though there was never a point in the proceedings when Joey didn’t come off as at least a little shady (and certainly opportunistic), by the time Casualties of Love aired public opinion had turned against him enough that his participation in a movie in which he’s portrayed as a put upon blue collar mook whose only crime was being nice to a crazy, slutty teenager was, if not outright gross, certainly ill-timed and inappropriate.

The movie opens with a bearded, coked out Joey (Jack Scalia, a generous casting choice when you consider what the real Joey Buttafuoco looks like) whaling on a drum set, frantically driving around (while attempting to snort more cocaine off his hand), and visiting his mother’s grave in the middle of the night, laughing hysterically and stealing flowers from a nearby headstone. He presents the flowers to his long suffering wife, Mary Jo (Phyllis Lyons), who threatens to leave him if he doesn’t enter rehab.

Six weeks later, a now clean shaven, chastened Joey returns home a new man, and he and Mary Jo happily begin patching up their marriage. All their hard work is threatened, however, when, three years after rehab, Joey meets Amy Fisher (Alyssa Milano, in her first “adult” role), a customer at his auto body shop. Introduced to Joey by her jittery, creepy father, it’s lust at first sight for Amy, who begins regularly bringing in her car for repairs. In one of the film’s many attempts at portraying every single thing Amy does as calculated at a level one could describe as “Machiavellian,” there’s some vague implication that she’s damaging the car on purpose, just for the opportunity to see Joey.

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Though it can’t be stated enough how far from any common ground these movies are with each other (even the timelines don’t match up), that is never illustrated more in how Amy herself is portrayed. In Lethal Lolita, told from Amy’s perspective, she comes off as a little insecure, even unaware of the effect she has on men, and dresses in typical teenager jeans and baggy shirts. In Casualties of Love, where Amy is unequivocally the villain of the story, she’s all woman, a sexually aggressive, big haired man-eater who dresses like a mafia wife in skimpy blouses, stiletto heels, and comically tight pants. There seems to be a tacit suggestion that while Joey absolutely did not sleep with her, it would be understandable if he did, because, I mean, look at her, amirite?

Joey’s behavior towards Amy is flirty, but in a friendly, innocent way. If the Joey in Lethal Lolita comes off as oily and shifty, even when he’s trying to make a good impression, here he’s like a big puppy dog, all smiles and hearty pats on the back. Amy’s idea of flirting, however, is all but humping Joey’s leg and broadly hinting at her promiscuous nature. When Amy tells her that she likes older men, and that she lost her virginity at age 12 to a tile installer in her parents’ home, Joey is more shocked than titillated, but accepts her pager number anyway. Despite Amy being a veritable red flag factory, that’s just good ol’ Joey being a nice guy. When Amy tells him that she’ll assign the code number “007” to him on her pager, lovable dumb lug Joey asks “What am I, James Bond ovah heah?” Amy purrs “No, you’re not James Bond. James Bond couldn’t even come close to you,” as ominous music plays in the background.

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Amy seems to be obsessed with owning one of the shirts Joey and his employees wear. Implying that she would do just about anything (if you know what I’m sayin’, and I think you do) to get a chintzy white polo with an auto body shop logo on it, she tells him “I wanna be wearing your shirt on my body.” “Might be a little big on you,” Joey replies, smooth as fucking silk, to which Amy answers, of course, “I can handle your size.” Now, you may think (or hope, or pray) that this absolutely sizzling banter ends there, but it goes gloriously, insanely on, with the following dialogue:

JOEY: “You can handle extra large?”

AMY: “I can handle anything you give me.”

JOEY: “You sure about that?”

AMY: “Yeah, I’m sure.”

They almost kiss, but good ol’ Joey, who mentions numerous times how much he loves his beautiful wife Mary Jo, puts the brakes on it. It’s just jokes, he don’t mean nothin’ by it. But Amy sure does–when she’s left alone for a moment in his office, she steals a photograph of Mary Jo, as if to suggest that she’s decided at that very moment to do her harm.

Amy, who does eventually manage to lay a surprise kiss on Joey (he reacts to it in dismay, while Amy smirks in triumph and all but licks her chops like the Big Bad Wolf), kicks things into high gear. She begins telling people that she and Joey are in a relationship (she mentions to a friend that Joey both makes a lot of money and is “the best sex I’ve ever had,” in case you forgot this is a pro-Buttafuoco movie), while stalking and harassing him. She hires a classmate to shoot Mary Jo, for the princely sum of $600 and “all the free sex,” but the plan fails when the classmate brings an unloaded rifle for the job. Finally, six months later and with Joey no closer to seeing things her way, she does it herself.

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While Lethal Lolita concludes with the shooting, here it happens not even halfway through the movie. After that it becomes both a boring recovery drama, as Mary Jo’s injuries only bring her and Joey closer together, and a boring police drama, as the most entertaining character–Amy, of course–is relegated to the back burner. Even after she’s arrested, Amy can’t seem to open her mouth without a lie flying out of it, to the bemusement and perplexment of the cops, one of whom describes her as “a 17 year-old with a 40 year-old mind.”

When Joey asks what the statutory rape laws are in New York State, the police inexplicably take that as an admission from him, and announce to the press that he and Amy did, in fact, have an affair. Neither the cops, nor the hostile press, nor even Joey’s own lawyer, believe that the churchgoing family man never touched Amy. But it’s the truth! Joey’s only mistake in this whole sordid situation was not telling this kid to piss off after the third or fourth time she insists on hanging around his auto shop for hours at a time, eating pizza in a suggestive manner. Even after Amy tells her parents that Joey gave her “the herpes,” he forgives and remains on cordial terms with her, because he’s so nice, you see, just a salt of the earth fella who would give you the shirt off his back–in fact, Amy almost literally demands that he do just that.

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But Mary Jo, after only the briefest moment of doubt, believes Joey. A bullet permanently lodged in her brain isn’t enough to tear this epic love asunder. Whereas in Lethal Lolita, Joey speaks of Mary Jo with barely restrained disdain, as if she’s a problem that must be solved, here they’re wildly, almost obnoxiously in love, with Joey shouting “Is she the most beautiful woman in the world or what?” at one point. When he goes against his attorney’s advice and continues speaking to the press, it’s not to keep the spotlight firmly on him, you see, it’s so he can make as many public declarations of his love for Mary Jo as possible.

The Buttafuocos face financial ruin, and possible jailtime for Joey, but, of course good always triumphs over evil, and so it does here in the end. Just when things seem to be at their bleakest, and indictment for Joey is all but imminent, a conveniently timed videotape of Amy talking about the crime, and her plea bargain, appears on a tabloid television show. On the tape, Amy asks her boyfriend to marry her solely so she can enjoy conjugal visits in jail. “It’s like a convent up there, and I will never last without sex,” she says, all but straddling the boyfriend. “I have to have sex.” Mary Jo, watching the TV show and realizing that this turns the tide in Joey’s favor, crows in delight “What a sleazebag!”

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I remain unclear as to how the release of a videotape in which Amy implicates herself in a crime she already admitted to somehow clears Joey of any impending rape charges, being that those are two separate things, but at the end of the movie, Mary Jo cries “It’s ovah!” and tearfully runs into Joey’s arms as triumphant guitar music swells on the soundtrack. But it was not ovah: just a month after Casualties of Love aired, Joey Buttafuoco was charged with statutory rape after all, and seven months later he pled guilty. Whoops!

I was just a couple years older than Amy Fisher when this story broke, so I speak with some confidence when I say that, even before he admitted to sleeping with an underage girl, absolutely no one, save perhaps for his immediate family, believed Joey Buttafuoco was entirely innocent in the situation. Beyond the fact that his side of the story had its own inconsistencies (and even when he eventually got it straight it didn’t make much sense), Buttafuoco never met a microphone he didn’t like speaking into, whether it was for a legitimate news outlet, or a morning zoo radio show. He seemed less like a man struggling with fear and guilt over his wife’s devastating injuries, and more like someone who just won the Publishers’ Clearinghouse Sweepstakes, smiling at and cracking jokes with reporters, even the ones who had a clear agenda of trying to catch him in a lie. That carries over into the movie as well, when Joey offers to serve drinks to reporters stationed outside his house and asks one who’s from Liverpool if he knows Paul McCartney. “They’re just doing their job,” he tells a frustrated Mary Jo. That’s our Joey: friendly, patient, selfless, an innocent man terrorized by an oversexed hellion and then smeared by both the cops and the media.

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Again, to compare Joey’s story to Amy’s in Lethal Lolita is to look at one as the Bizarro World version of the other. In the earlier movie, Joey practically has his hand down Amy’s pants from the minute they meet. In Casualties of Love, even after months of Amy undressing, redressing, and then undressing him again (only more slowly and sensually) with her eyes, Joey reacts to the suggestion that she has a crush on him as if that’s the funniest, most ridiculous thing he’s ever heard. Even the events both parties agree actually happened, such as when Amy visited the Buttafuoco home months before the shooting to get a closer look at Mary Jo, play out completely different. In Lethal Lolita, Mary Jo, despite never having met her before and knowing nothing at that point about her relationship with Joey, treats Amy with open derision, as if she’s some ragamuffin who shows up at her door looking for handouts. In Casualties of Love, however, Mary Jo is warm and welcoming towards Amy, just a friendly suburban housewife who, like her husband, doesn’t recognize danger even when it’s literally right up in her face.

Make no mistake, though–Casualties of Love may be touted as the story of a couple’s strength in the face of adversity (not to mention a horny, murderous teen), most of it focuses squarely on Joey. Mary Jo isn’t given any dimension beyond looking adoringly at Joey and being a victim, who seems far less angry about what happened to her than what her poor husband is going through. She is allowed exactly one meltdown directed at Joey, which ends instantly when he gives her a hug. The rest of her ire is reserved for the incompetent cops who just won’t drop the idea that Joey may have committed a felony, predatory lawyers who seem far more interested in trying to railroad Joey rather than prosecute Amy, and, of course, Amy herself, the malevolent mastermind who concocted this whole thing on her own because…well, we never really find out why, but it doesn’t matter.

It’s understandable why the Buttafuocos felt they needed to rush out this laughable puff piece, in order to keep what little public opinion they had left on their side intact. Yet, it’s so crassly manipulative, with scenes like Joey weeping in front of his mother’s grave and swearing in a church that he nevah touched that girl, that it actually has the opposite effect. There’s a whole genre of true crime shows in which someone who appears to be the perfect, loving spouse is, in reality, a dangerous sociopath, and that’s how Joey comes off here. If anything, particularly in hindsight, he’s even creepier than the Joey in Lethal Lolita. When he all but drops his monocle in phony shock over the idea that Amy might be interested in him in that way, it reads at least as insidious as anything “Bad Joey” does. Except here, of course, he’s supposed to be the hero.

And now for those burning questions…

How’s the hair? While Alyssa Milano manages to get her hair to an acceptable Jersey mall level, Jack Scalia sports a glorious, Tony Manero-esque pompadour.

How about those Lon Guyland accents? Shaky. Milano just sounds like an adult version of Samantha Micelli from Who’s the Boss?, if Samantha hadn’t grown up with the strong, loving hand of her single father to guide her.

How much do the actors look like their real life counterparts? Joey Buttafuoco fucking wishes he looked like Jack Scalia, though, to be fair Alyssa Milano looking anything like Amy Fisher is a pretty hard sell in itself. Phyllis Lyons is an eerily close Mary Jo, though.

Saxophone music during the love scenes? No love scenes. Joey Buttafuoco makes love only to his wife, and discreetly off-screen, thank you very much.

Original airdate: January 3, 1993

 

Watch it here

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