Gotti asks me to put my money where my mouth is. A favorite complaint of mine when reviewing movies is to critique actors turned directors for neglecting the film of their films. That they render mere theater pieces that happened to have been filmed in lieu of genuine works of cinema. Watching actor-turned-director Kevin Connolly’s bastardization of the life of John Gotti, I realize that I’ve sinned. Most actors turned directors at least display a basic competence with the camera. They merely fail to embellish their narratives in any particularly cinematic way, dismissing the possibility that the camera might be to used to achieve anything beyond or besides perfunctory realism. They treat their camera as a window or a simple observer rather than a canvas and, in doing so, their cameras’ perspective often fails to expose its perspectival nature, feigning naturalism.
Gotti puts me to shame for complaining about actors who understand the mere basics of continuity, because this film is a whole other beast entirely. Rather than lambasting other actor-turned-directors for only understanding basic continuity and nothing more, I should be worshipping them for at least getting that part right. The film’s ineptitude with cinema is immediately apparent. Unsurprisingly so, I wanted to say, but Gotti is a thoroughly surprising motion picture, confounding even the simplest expectation. It’s breathtakingly idiotic, from the faultlessly asinine politics to the thorough-goingly irreparable narrative structure that, I for one, am convinced was writers Lem Dobbs and Leo Rossi or director Kevin Connolly’s mangled attempt at an avant-garde film.
Typically, biopics over-emphasize what they perceive as foundational events in their subjects’ lives, focusing on the comings and goings of their characters rather than their souls. They emphasize the macro-structure of their life – the what – at the expense of the minutiae, the warp and weave of their existence – the why, the how. They force-feed the ungovernable life of the individual into a cookie-cutter narrative structure, and their faults are ones of over-simplification by way of over-enunciation. They strive, above all, desperately to explain, and their issues are explanatory above all.
Hand of God, I could not possibly explain anything about John Gotti’s life after watching this film. It almost feels like an anti-biopic. Perversely, Gotti is unintelligible at the level of basic nuts-and-bolts “this happened, and then this happened, and then this happened” storytelling, the perfection of which is typically the bane of most films. The slurry of asynchronous, temporally-promiscuous scenes really did make me question whether I was simply, it turns out, an inadequate witness to the art form. I really did entertain the fact (or, rather, I am gullible enough, or was desperate enough, to allow myself to believe) that it was a Malickian collage of associatively-linked, impressionistically-minded moments. That it aspired to be a non-totalizing gestalt, both greater than each moment but unwilling to force every moment into one narrative about the man. That the film wasn’t interested in making a simple argument about Gotti or imprisoning him in the confines of a tendentious reading or a narrative. That it would allow him to float free from the confines of narrative, or that it would fracture him in a way that narrative could not easily accept.
And, in truth, that is what the film does, but not well, and not, I think, intentionally. The film is marked by a persistent inability to decide whether it has no idea about John Gotti or whether it wants to view him as some sort of folkish New York city hero for the modern era, an anti-hero who was unduly persecuted by “the man.” Whenever it takes up the latter position (and, truthfully, “position” is a much too tendentious term for a film as watery and vague as Gotti), it quietly washes its hands of the rather transparent fact of his complicity with a racist, sexist, old-world-ist organized crime syndicate that represents respectable society’s complacent underbelly, a shadow image that merely mimics mainstream social forms rather than a righteous break from the confines of government.
And then there are all the little issues! Like the acting, which is mesmerizingly inept, at once fully committed to selling the hoariest Italian-American accents this side of Super Mario Bros. and rather indifferently committed to that very commitment, if how often they slip back into their natural accents is to be taken as a measure. Not that the dialogue they’re forced to sell helps them at all. The accidental death of one of Gotti’s young sons is treated in two flavors by the screenplay. One of which is a frankly dumbfounding excuse for Preston to wail in an approximation of “crying”. The other is a gift from Gotti himself, a heartfelt and heartbreaking claim that he died “without any hair on his prick,” the “p” hitting as violently as any line reading has ever been.
That’s probably the most immediately bracing line, but, much as I enjoy going off-cue, the most telling line (and my favorite line) has got to be the communal pick, the already-infamous moment where Gotti’s boss tells him he needs the support of all five New York City boroughs to take over the crime family, before slowly rattling off all five boroughs to Gotti, a man who was born in and had lived in the city all his life. There’s also one bit where a character remarks that he will “park a bus up your ass sideways” to another character, leaving (I assume) both them and me unsure whether that is meant as a threat or an absurd statement of performance art, but Gotti is so overstuffed that such a masterpiece of bad dialogue is stuck in mere third, hanging down in the nosebleeds.
I could go on-and-on; Gotti is a perfect storm of inept cinema, in both minor and major keys. For instance, the film has the gall to trot out “Theme from Shaft,” the surest sign that it is implicitly positing that Gotti is some sort of street avenger of the masses, an unrepresented voice finally getting his screen due in 2019. That’s bad enough, but it only distracts from the subtler ineptitude, like the fact that the score has a rather pronounced habit of stealing musical cues from songs which the film presumably couldn’t afford to license formally. Just about the only thing that is merely “bad” in the neutral, uncaring way movies are usually bad is the cinematography.
And towering over it all is John Travolta, introduced to us in one of the most dumbfoundingly idiotic introductions of the 21st century. Gotti begins with a thoroughly absurd opening with Gotti speaking to us from beyond the grave, informing us of his imprisonment and his death while tacitly suggesting that the film really does view him as a tragic guardian angel of the city looking back on his domain from above. Travolta closes the film claiming you’re “never gonna see another guy like me if you live to be 5000,” and that’s true, but not, I suspect, for the reason the film thinks. There’s no one like this John Gotti, more children’s party clown as local city councilperson as abstract assemblage of body parts than human being. As interpreted through Travolta’s awful accent, the film seems to stage its intervention as some kind of nonsensical, post-modern joke, one that can’t possibly believe that its own gruesome parody of Gotti is anything similar to who was by all accounts a gruesome parody of a man in real life. On second thought, maybe the aesthetic of Gotti is a perfect marriage of form and content. A real biopic would need a real person as object of study, and I can’t tell whether the man the film is ostensibly based on qualifies.