I confess that I learned very little about NYC mob boss John Gotti over the course of Gotti, the listless and confusing new biopic, starring John Travolta and directed by Kevin Connolly, that bombed both commercially (it opened last weekend in 12th place with $1.6 million) and critically (it scored a perfect 0 percent on Rotten Tomatoes). But here’s something I learned about John Travolta: He really likes Pitbull. Meaning the rapper, from Miami. “I listen to Pitbull,” Travolta told Miami media last week. “He is my man. I love my Pitbull.”
Amazing. And verily, a new song called “Amore,” featuring Pitbull and Leona Lewis, both opens and closes the movie. “There’s rules and codes,” raps Pitbull. “You don’t break ’em for no one / Unless you’re a fool like that fuckin’ prick Sammy the Bull.” As rap lyrics, these lines are negligible; as narrative and characterization, they are direct and coherent enough that I wish that Pitbull, who scored this whole movie, had written the screenplay instead.
What we’ve got here is the dreaded bad-bad movie, as distinct from a good-bad movie like The Room or The Snowman that at least has enough verve and personality to be memorable in its awfulness. Gotti, meanwhile, is just bewildering mob-movie pastiche, kicking off with Gotti becoming a made man in the Gambino family in 1973 and quickly lapsing into a chronologically jumbled procession of prisons, courtrooms, wood-paneled hideouts, awkward parties, weddings, funerals, and seedy back alleys. These are stalked by an interchangeable coterie of mob goons whose names and functions and relationships to one another I can only begin to guess at, some of whom eventually look sad and most of whom eventually die. Ostensibly crucial dialogue is drowned out by the likes of “Heart of Glass” and “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire).” The pace drags; the sporadic violence fails to either titillate or disgust.
You will likely feel bad for Travolta, who, as Gotti, spends the first 10 minutes of the film languishing in various prisons in various time periods with various intense makeup situations, the movie-magic techniques employed to make him look younger arguably more grotesque than those employed to make him look older. He is committed, certainly, from the movie’s opening scene, in which a regal Gotti, narrating from beyond the grave, turns from a lush city vista directly to the camera and snarls, “Let me tell you something. New York City is the greatest fuckin’ city in the world,” treating the fourth wall as contemptuously as this movie treats the other three.
He growls, he slaps, he cajoles, he inspires. He mourns the death of his 12-year-old son, Frankie Gotti, in a car accident, a queasy and not ineffective sequence, though Connolly insists on multiple shots of the sun to establish that the car’s driver was blinded by the sun. (“He was 12 years old, he didn’t have a hair on his prick,” Gotti laments. “There is no reason. There is no god.”) He boldly takes out a bumbling mob boss, ascends to the throne, deals with various internecine squabbles, and beats various court cases until he is finally, devastatingly betrayed by that fuckin’ prick Sammy the Bull.
Gotti is fond of the If you do [dishonorable thing], I’m gonna [vulgar thing] construction, e.g., “If you ever do this again, I’ll park a bus up your ass fuckin’ sidways.” [Big laugh, possibly ironic, from one of the five other people in my theater.] Much has been made of the fact that 40 percent of Gotti’s opening-weekend audience (including myself) came via MoviePass, which took a financial stake in the film’s production; in particularly dull or confounding moments, I took to imagining Travolta-as-Gotti barking, “What the fuck is MoviePass?” in his very convincing Maximum Bronx accent. I found this activity preferable, anyway, to watching him interact with anyone on-screen; his blunt and uncouth repartee with all those interchangeable mob goons works as neither poetry nor street poetry.
SOME GUY: [Holds head in pain.] “Ahhhhh!”
SOME GUY: “This fuckin’ cancer.”
Much has also been made of Gotti’s uncommonly troubled eight-year road to the screen: four different directors, 44 different producers, a host of discarded actors in supporting roles (from Joe Pesci to Al Pacino to Lindsay Lohan), and at least one investor arrested for fraud. The film is based on the 2015 self-published memoir Shadow of My Father, written by Gotti’s son, John A. Gotti, who worried in December that the film featured “way too much violence,” adding of Hollywood, “there was a hell of a lot more honor in the street.” He is either confused about what his father did for a living or hellbent on confusing everyone else.
Thus, the film, with a final script by Lem Dobbs and Leo Rossi, treats both father and son like blameless folk heroes beloved in the streets and cravenly persecuted by government stooges; the central tension, when it deigns to appear, concerns the fate of young John A., played by Spencer Lofranco as a sort of Swole A.J. Soprano, with his giant Mike Bibby arms and his prim eyeglasses that are fooling nobody. The film’s climactic argument that John A., who took over the Gambino crime family in the wake of his father’s final imprisonment in 1992, did nothing wrong is bolstered by the fact that he is never depicted as doing anything interesting.
I have waited long enough to remind you that your director, Kevin Connolly, played E on Entourage. It is for the best if you imagine that Gotti exists in the Entourage universe, that it’s E’s big power play that backfires horribly and sets him up for several seasons’ worth of constant ribbing.
Turtle: “Hey, E, remember that time you soundtracked a New York City mob car-bombing with the Pet Shop Boys’ ‘West End Girls’?”
Johnny Drama: “Yeah, and remember when you put a song that starts out ‘There is a house in New Orleans’ over a funeral procession through Queens?”
Vince: “Don’t listen to these guys. I thought using ‘Walk Like an Egyptian’ right after he gets another not-guilty verdict was perfect.”
Ari: “Hey, thanks for having that one mob guy list all the boroughs in New York. Great refresher.”
Lloyd: “Did you write the line ‘If I robbed a church and had the steeple stuck out my ass, I would deny it’ yourself?”
Sloan: “I told you to proofread the epilogue stuff.”
Here in the vastly inferior real world, Connolly’s technique generally pulls up just short of inept, which only sharpens the contrast of the inept parts. His courtroom scenes are bizarrely broad sub–Law & Order mini melodramas that play like 30 Rock parodies of themselves, with shock reveals of confidential informants and one judge-sassing You’re the Real Crooks tirade from Gotti’s wife, Victoria, played by Travolta’s wife, Kelly Preston. Make the whole movie out of that black box and you’ve got a Razzie-core instant classic that squeaks out at least a low-single-digit Rotten Tomatoes score on schadenfreude alone. As such, this is a Medellin for the MoviePass era, nowhere near good enough to justify watching even for free, and somehow nowhere near bad enough either.