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Most mafia movies, whether good or bad (and this one is bad), try to show that power corrupts, crime doesn’t pay and the price of allegiance to the Cosa Nostra is often too high to handle.
Such is not the case of Gotti, an altogether hagiographic — one could even say pro-mob — biopic that had its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. Starring John Travolta, who executive produced a passion project that took eight years to get off the ground and will be released in theaters next month, it’s not only that the film is pretty terrible: poorly written, devoid of tension, ridiculous in spots and just plain dull in others. But the fact that it mostly portrays John Gotti as a loving family man and altogether likable guy, and his son John Gotti Jr. as a victim of government persecution, may be a first in the history of the genre. Leave it up to “Teflon Don” to get a movie made that seems to clear him of all charges more than 15 years after his death.
Directed by Kevin Connolly of Entourage fame, who filled in after Barry Levinson dropped off the long-gestating movie (which, per IMDb, has 29 credited executive producers, included Travolta), Gotti was presented by Cannes head Thierry Fremaux in a screening held at one of the Palais des Festivals’ smaller venues. It’s a dubious choice, given both the paltry quality of the film and the fact that it offered the rare spectacle of “Junior” Gotti — who was acting boss of the Gambino crime family throughout much of the 1990s — standing onstage in a theater that’s been screening works by the likes of Yasujiro Ozu, Billy Wilder and Jacques Rivette throughout the week. Perhaps that’s the deal you need to make to get John Travolta to give a master class at your festival, but instead of banning selfies on the red carpet, perhaps Fremaux should consider banning guests who have been indicted on racketeering, extortion, kidnapping and murder conspiracy charges.
Gotti Jr. (Spencer Rocco Lofranco) is very much present in a movie whose script, written by Lem Dobbs and Leo Rossi, is based on his autobiographical account Shadow of My Father. The relationship between Gotti Jr. and Gotti Sr. (Travolta) tends to drive most of the plot, which otherwise lazily charts the latter’s rise from ambitious hitman for Carlo Gambino (Michael Cipiti) to capo under the leadership of Paul Castellano (Donald John Volpenhein) to the time he became the big boss after he had Castellano taken out in an infamous shooting outside of a Manhattan steakhouse back in 1985.
In between all the mob business, which is handled in a matter-of-fact and generic manner, Gotti focuses on the close-knit family unit that the gangster created with his wife (Kelly Preston) and five children out in the tree-lined streets of Queens. Shown to be a tough but caring dad, as well as a testy but affectionate hubby, Gotti is a far cry from Henry Hill, Michael Corleone or any other Mafioso depicted on screen. The great tragedy here is not that he was responsible for countless deaths as the head of one of the world’s biggest crime syndicates, but that his 12-year-old son Frank was killed in a car accident in front of his home. (The man behind the accident disappeared a few months later and was never heard from again.)
Gotti spends a long time portraying the emotional aftermath of the death (the film is dedicated to Frank), but very little effort is made to build any sort of suspense around its main characters. As we flashback between Gotti in prison during his last days suffering from cancer and some of the pivotal events in his life, we catch glimpses of partners-in-crime Angelo Ruggiero (Pruitt Taylor Vince), “Willy Boy” Johnson (Chris Kerson) and Sammy “The Bull” Gravano (William DeMeo) — the latter would become the most infamous rat in mob history when he informed on Gotti to the FBI in 1991 — but these men are shown without real flair or distinction, as if they were background extras in an episode of The Sopranos.
The father-son story never quite works, either, with Gotti Jr. revealed to be a loyal muscle-bound lieutenant who, in his most triumphant moment, becomes a made man as his dad looks proudly on. And although an earlier scene shows Gotti Sr. giving his son a good smacking around for — oops — beating someone to death in a bar, there seems to be little remorse here for criminal behavior of any sort, even if Junior eventually decides he’s had enough of the gangster life. Meanwhile, one of the film’s final sequences offers up news footage showing neighbors, friends and fans praising Gotti’s many virtues after his death, while a closing title card explains how Gotti Jr. suffered under years of faulty indictments for charges that would never stick.
Wearing a perma-tan and mounds of makeup (including what Gotti describes as a “tit” on his chin following cancer surgery), Travolta is a lively presence in some scenes, talking in a rowdy New Yawka accent and tossing off a few good lines early on. (The highlight being: “If I robbed a church and had the steeple sticking out of my ass, I would deny it.”) But he can do little to bring this tedious and episodic chronicle to life, while LoFranco — who looks and acts like he was shipped in from Jersey Shore — never seems the right age for the part, especially when Junior is supposed to be running the Gambino clan after his dad is locked up. Preston is operating mostly in shrill-mode as Mrs. Gotti, while Stacy Keach offers some gravitas as Gotti’s wise mentor Neil Dellacroce.
Made on a purported $10 million budget, the film was shot in Cincinnati and tends to feel like it, with a few aerial images and Brooklyn exteriors reminding us that this is New York. The soundtrack is credited to three composers, including Armando Christian Perez, aka Pitbull, whose hip-hop contributions accompany montages of the real Gotti showboating in front of the camera.
Production companies: Emmett/Furia/Oasis Films, Fiore Films, Highland Film Group
Distributor: Venture Entertainment
Cast: John Travolta, Kelly Preston, Stacy Keach, Spencer Rocco Lofranco, Pruitt Taylor Vince, William DeMeo
Director: Kevin Connolly
Screenwriters: Lem Dobbs, Leo Rossi, based on the book Shadow of My Father by John A. Gotti
Producers: Randall Emmett, Marc Fiore, Michael Froch, George Furia
Executive producers: Noel Ashman, Barry Brooker, Peter Capozzi, Fay Devlin, Anson Downes, Maurice Fadida, Linda Favila, Thomas Fiore, Ted Fox, Arianne Fraser, Phillip Glasser, Wayne Marc Godfrey, Norton Herrick, Marty Ingels, Anthony Jabre, Robert Jones, Corey Large, Rob Logozio, Randi Michel, Keya Morgan, Vance Owen, Delphine Perrier, Rick Salomon, Steven Saxton, Kirk Shaw, Mark Stewart, Dt Thomas, John Travolta, Stan Wertlieb
Director of photography: Michael Barrett
Production designer: Patricio M. Farrell
Costumer designer: Olivia Miles
Editor: Jim Flynn
Composers: Jacon Bunton, Jorge Gomez, Armando Christian Perez
Casting director: D. Lynn Meyers
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Special Gala Screening)
Sales: Highland Film Group
Rated R, 110 minutes
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