Gotti feels like it was directed by a 40-year-old man who owns a framed Scarface poster, where every line of dialogue is an unsubtler variation on “all I got in this world is my word and my balls…”
I don’t know if the poster thing is literally true of Gotti director Kevin Connolly (best known as E from Entourage), but it sure feels like it. Gotti is technically inept, where every scene feels like a disconnected sizzle reel for a different movie than the previous one, but the fascinating thing it about is less what it fails to do than what it’s trying to do. Because for Connolly and his screenwriters (Lem Dobbs and Leo Rossi share writing credit, though Gotti had been in development hell for years), the stunningly infantile take on John Gotti’s life story seems to have been “it’s cool to be the boss.”
At least when people misread Scarface or Goodfellas as a hero’s journey we can plausibly blame the audience; in Gotti there’s no other way to read it. Gotti is a puff piece for the Gotti family (who, obviously, cooperated in its making) and doesn’t seem the least bit embarrassed about it. John Gotti extorted people for money and killed his coworkers, but boy did he drive a shiny car!
Gotti opens with John Travolta as John Gotti, talking directly into the camera with the Brooklyn Bridge in the background, telling us what a badass he is. In a different movie, this might be a useful way to draw a contrast between the way Gotti apparently saw himself (“If you lived a thousand years you’d never see another one like me!”) and what he actually was, a sociopath who liked money and lacked empathy, distinguished mainly by his lack of a superego (and it’s debatable how much that even distinguished him). In Gotti, however, it’s clear that Connolly listened to the Gottis’ self-serving nonsense about respect and honah and codes (stuff they probably learned largely by watching mafia movies themselves) and took it exactly at face value. For Connolly, John Gotti seems to be the archetype of “tough, streetwise, flashy New Yawk guy” Connolly wants people to associate with him when he tells the other former child actors from the pussy posse that he’s from Long Island.
Of course, watching an entire movie crafted from the most superficial possible reading of John Gotti’s life is frequently hilarious. In the fourth-wall breaking opener, Travolta’s Gotti tells us “In dis life, you eithah end up dead or in da clink — I did bote,” which is an absolute howler of the “I know I’m not supposed to be laughing but I can’t stop” variety. Not often does a guy stop you on the street to tell you the uplifting story of how he ended up dead. Whatever else you could say about John Travolta, when he’s bad (and to be fair I’m not sure any actor could come out looking good, given this material) he is mesmerizingly bad. He plays John Gotti with a frat party Deniro impression sneer basically the entire time, constantly telling us things about the mafia, otherwise known as la cosa nostra, which I would remind you that I am in.
Travolta’s real-life wife, Kelly Preston, meanwhile, plays John Gotti’s wife, Victoria, with acting that’s twice as bad as Travolta’s and half as mesmerizing. In one scene, she visits John in prison, earnestly telling him “I love yooze” before she gets up to leave. Most of the time you feel like Gotti‘s tagline should’ve been “John Gotti: He’s walkin’ here.”
The actual tagline, meanwhile, emblazoned on posters all around my neighborhood, is “Gotti: He showed the world who’s boss.”
Which… I guess… is… a take? I generally try not to review the marketing instead of the movie, but in this case the posters are perfectly emblematic of the film’s approach — appreciating vague ideas of money, power, toughness, and cool suits without having a single deeper thought. Most people would probably recognize the inherent hypocrisy of a protagonist who’s constantly going on about honor and codes having come to power through an unsanctioned hit on his boss (Paul Castellano, whose murder was one of the crimes Gotti eventually went to jail for), but not Connolly and company.
Even when Connolly occasionally has good ideas, they quickly turn out not to be. Throughout the film, he mixes in stock footage of the real people and news footage covering the events depicted — something I’ve long screamed for. Great in theory, though in practice it means that Travolta’s initial monologue gives way to a good four minutes of Ken Burns-style zooms on old snapshots of John Gotti smiling and hanging out with his pals. Aw, cute, what a sweet home movie you’ve made about (*checks notes*) …sociopathic murderer John Gotti.
Likewise, one of the most interesting, and perhaps telling, episodes of the John Gotti saga was the time his neighbor, John Favara, hit Gotti’s son Frank with his car and killed the boy. The death was ruled accidental and Favara tried to apologize but was allegedly threatened, beaten, kidnapped, and disappeared. According to some, he was dissolved in acid. Even the guy who witnessed Favara’s kidnapping had to sell his diner and skip town. The incident says a lot about what it must’ve been like to live near a guy like John Gotti — imagine being anyone who had to bring him bad news — but in the film, the entire story is relayed via an old news report, the ultimate example of telling rather than showing. We don’t get to see any of it, but we do get an inexplicable scene of Victoria Gotti breaking furniture in a room off-screen, and another of John Gotti crying to an associate “He was 12 yeahs old! He didn’t even have hair on his prick!”
Most of Gotti‘s scenes feel like that, disconnected anecdotes filled with obvious trailer lines (another great one: Victoria screaming into the prison phone “I brought our son into the world! You brought him into the life!”). It’s more of a flipbook of different Gotti trailers or discrete cut scenes that might appear as the movie-within-the-show on Entourage than a movie in its own right. The characters talk about things we never saw happen, while the film takes loving care to depict seemingly pointless anecdotes, like John Gotti kissing a friend’s tombstone (people talking to tombstones is my favorite movie trope).
One of Gotti‘s few recognizable through lines is that John Gotti Jr. (played by Spencer Lofranco) is actually a great guy, which is probably not surprising for a film whose production began with the purchase of Gotti Jr’s life rights. A biopic told from the clearly biased perspective of whichever surviving real-life figure participated in it is nothing new (Straight Outta Compton and All Eyez On Me also come to mind) but the phenomenon reaches new heights of transparency in Gotti. The movie, which had previously been about John Gotti Sr. (ostensibly) in the last 10 minutes turns into the saga of John Jr’s unfair treatment at the hands of the US justice system. “The government were the real gangsters,” Victoria Gotti says, exegetically.
It’s one of Gotti‘s many emblematic lines, describing something we never actually saw happen and delivering a statement that doesn’t actually mean anything but sounds vaguely profound to a dumb person. He showed the world who’s boss!
In another scene towards the end, we see stock footage of John Gotti fans telling news cameras how important he was. “John Gotti was the best, now the street punks are takin’ ovah,” says one fuzz-lipped townie to the camera. We never saw movie Gotti interact with punk one.
“John Gotti was good, actually” is such an exquisitely bad take, but I can’t help being somewhat curious about what all those mourning townies loved about him — the folk hero John Gotti. The townies are plainly real, and the hero Gotti is real to them. And Kevin Connolly seems to be one of those townies, or at least desperately wants to be. But I watched Connolly’s entire movie in which he tries to sell us the folk hero Gotti and all I saw were suits and slogans and haircuts. He showed the world who’s boss!