This article was corrected on June 5, 2001.
Let’s forget for a moment that Hollywood’s depictions of the Mafia are these days shot through “Sopranos”-stained lenses, that there was a time when mob comparisons were strictly “The Godfather” and “GoodFellas.” “Boss of Bosses” aspires to depict the Paul Castellano story in “Sopranos” fashion, i.e., displaying the godfather as a well-rounded man rather than iconic gangster. Were it fiction, it might not be so irritating that “Boss” skims over the aspects of Castellano’s life that would be the most applicable to this sort of treatment, and Chazz Palminteri’s charisma-free performance would have some merits in its coldness. A weak script and uninspired direction only add to the curious nature of this telepic that tries to extend the notion of a “mob movie” — by midway this made-for would lose viewers to “Godfather 3.”
“Boss” delivers a flat portrayal of the mob’s first white-collar criminal, the man who chose to elevate the level of organized crime, taking it out of the streets and into legitimate businesses. Young Paul Castellano (Yani Gellman) is a go-getter par excellence in Jere Cunningham’s script, which struggles once the future king grows up. It even fails to get street lingo correct, referring to “whacking out” a rat rather than the more correct “whack,” and actors struggle with the simple “fugeddaboutit.” Although adapted from a book penned by FBI agents, telepic lacks a particular point of view — there’s not even a likable character to latch onto. And not only is there no sympathy drawn to Daniel Benzali’s depiction of FBI honcho Bruce Mouw, we’re left thinking the bald Benzali, star of “Murder One,” went after criminals with a far greater vengeance on that short-lived ABC show than Mouw did with the five families.
“Bosses,” most significantly, answers no questions about Castellano and his motivations or even explains his intense dislike of rising mobster John Gotti (Sonny Marinelli in the movie’s most underwritten role) or why he saw a life for himself in the arms of his Colombian housekeeper, Gloria (Angela Alvarado Rosa). His marriage to fever-pitched Nina (an over-the-top Patricia Mauceri), the Gambino relative whose last name assisted his rise in the crime family, ends in a New York minute in this drama; all of these are superficially treated angles that could play into defining Castellano as a man. But his legacy is shortchanged at every turn, even his death.
Pic starts with Castellano being shot in his car as his armed driver gets out. The obvious flashback following the shootout heads back to Castellano’s youth as a numbers runner in Queens, N.Y. In no time, he earns a reputation as a kid who knows to keep his mouth shut and to whom he needs to be loyal. He earns the trust of Carlo Gambino (Al Ruscio) and his top capo, Neil Dellacroce (Dayton Callie), which gets him to the top post in 1976. After that he spends an astonishing amount of time worrying about the Donnie Brasco situation and exhibits reasonable concern that the numskulls he hires don’t understand building contracts.
His feuds, particularly those with Gotti and his wife, are played strictly as subtext. He has a definite aversion to drug dealing, and all fingers point at Gotti as the trafficker who should “become a memory,” but even their dispute is played out through dirty looks rather than confrontation or even contemplation. By not making a move, Castellano eventually becomes Gotti’s target as he arranges the hit.
Gloria goes through obvious emotions as she is exposed to a new level of luxury that has her bewildered; auds will be truly bewildered when she is seen in the house working for Nina and Paul — and everyone clearly knows what’s going on. Fact that she was the one who, history tells us, let the FBI into the Castellano mansion to bug it is not explored. (The bureau agents invade the property like ninja warriors). Again a missed opportunity, but Rosa’s OK perf isn’t even convincing that her motivation to stay with him was love.
Cast has a believable look, even though Marinelli (“Falcone”) more closely resembles a young Lucky Luciano than Gotti (Armando Assante’s commanding perf for HBO five years ago has made that a no-win role for other actors). Palminteri does not age, nor does he lose hair or gain glasses as Castellano did late in life. Castellano’s White House-like residence is captured OK, but his pride in the home is not; other location shots are serviceable, but it’s anyone’s guess where in the five boroughs these mobsters are living. Music by John Altman does little to elevate the tone of this meller.