Shame on Cannes. In what appears to be a deal with the devil, or one made with a gun to the back of his head, Cannes director Thierry Frémaux inexplicably agreed to give “Gotti” — the myth-building, record-cleansing inside story of notorious Gotham mob boss John Gotti, as seen by his oldest son — a spot at the prestigious film festival … if you can call a single screening in the festival’s smallest official venue, the Salle Buñuel, which seats fewer than 300, a proper world premiere.
It’s certainly a far cry from the treatment John Travolta received 24 years earlier, when “Pulp Fiction” bowed in competition in the massive Lumière theater downstairs, but no doubt the price of convincing the actor to participate in the following day’s events, which included a master class and a beachside screening of “Grease.” Though it was projected without the festival’s red-carpet trailer beforehand, Frémaux introduced the film personally, coming back afterward to pose for photos with Travolta, who fought for nine years to get the film made.
For the star, it was clearly a case of recognizing a juicy role and refusing to let it get away. But for the Gotti family — those linked by biology and business associations — it was a chance to erect a statue in his honor. Adapted from John A. Gotti’s self-published memoir “Shadow of My Father,” the movie doesn’t go so far as to insist that Dad was innocent (although, apart from his role in a couple of hits, it depicts none of the crimes for which he was ultimately convicted: racketeering, loan sharking, illegal gambling, obstruction of justice, bribery of a public official and tax fraud), but it does try to exonerate Junior.
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Culminating in a jaw-dropping montage of locals extolling Gotti’s virtues, the film presents an extended grievance over how unjust it is that the U.S. government won’t leave the poor kid alone (and kid he is, played from roughly ages 15 to 50 by thuggishly handsome 25-year-old Spencer Lofranco). Amid the indignity of “five trials in 37 months,” was Junior wrongly charged with drug trafficking, murder conspiracy, and racketeering? Maybe, but that’s a strange agenda for a mob movie to put forth, posing as a candid tell-all about the most notorious gangster since Al Capone, when in fact, it’s designed to clear his son’s name. If anything, Travolta’s portrayal of Gotti seems engineered not to understand the larger-than-life “Teflon Don” (so-called because, for the longest time, no one could make charges stick) but to make us more sympathetic toward Junior’s case.
A project that has changed directors (Barry Levinson was once attached), cast (so was Al Pacino), and producers (those credits are still in flux) more times than Donald Trump has dismissed his staff, “Gotti” is structured around an in-prison meeting in which John Gotti Jr. breaks the news that he’s considering a plea bargain to his incarcerated pops, rendered hideous by throat cancer. “They took my tit and put it on my face,” Travolta wisecracks beneath prosthetic plastic surgery. The makeup’s quite good in this scene (especially in contrast with the heavy foundation everyone wears the rest of the movie), although no one figured out how to make Lofranco look older.
If you think poor Junior had it tough, living “in the shadow of his father,” just imagine how director Kevin Connolly must have felt tackling this project, the “Entourage” actor’s third feature, when the influence of “The Godfather” and “Goodfellas” looms so large over every decision. By intercutting news clips and B-roll throughout, he doesn’t lend credibility so much as emphasize the TV-movie-like pageantry involved in re-creating the most well-publicized moments in Gotti’s life: his first hit, his first stint in jail, his first RICO trial, his first kid, his first guilty verdict, his final days.
It’s no crime for to depict such a notorious criminal in a sympathetic light. If anything, that’s what movies do best, offering audiences the opportunity to identify with people — even real-life bad guys — far outside their sphere of everyday experience. But there’s something unseemly about the way Connolly and screenwriters Lem Dobbs and Leo Rossi go about it, twisting the usual Cosa Nostra code — wherein criminals don’t rat on one another, and all high-profile hits must be sanctioned by the other families — into a kind of justification. That undermines even the typical illicit thrill of the genre, in which brutal whackings can erupt out of nowhere, as the movie implies that nobody got it who didn’t deserve it, and goes through great lengths to detail how and why Gotti had Gambino boss Paul Castellano executed outside Sparks Steak House in 1985.
The obvious model for this otherwise suburban-set portrait is “The Sopranos,” focusing on the domestic side of a business that you’d never guess involved getting rich off drug trafficking, prostitution, extortion, and so on. Apart from the occasional good-natured argument with his wife (played by Travolta’s real-life wife Kelly Preston) and a general tough-love approach to parenthood, their protagonist comes across like a respectable family man — to the extent that when one of his kids is killed while playing in the street, a grief-stricken Gotti bites his knuckles in the hospital hallway and later sees to the reckless driver’s permanent disappearance.
Apparently, Junior has nothing but respect for his dad, coping with bullying from fellow cadets at the New York Military Academy (boo-hoo) before later deciding to follow in the family business. Despite constant on-screen indicators of the date and location of various scenes, there’s an overall incoherence to the film’s structure, reinforced by the ridiculous age differences between actors. Of course, Gotti’s crimes catch up with him, but his fall, when it comes, feels weirdly anti-dramatic, as does the way he copes with brother Angelo Ruggiero (Pruitt Taylor Vince) making an unsanctioned hit — no comparison to the infamous Fredo fishing scene of “The Godfather: Part II.”
While not quite hagiographic, the film certainly flatters the “Dapper Don.” Elegantly dressed, standing proudly erect in court, face fixed in a defiant scowl, Travolta is frequently shot from low angles, holding the pose. His performance ain’t lousy, but the movie that surrounds it is, and it’s almost laughable to see this iconic star trying so hard on behalf of a project that is so compromised in its intentions.
Unlike “Battlefield Earth,” the earnest awfulness of which could be blamed on Travolta’s involvement in Scientology, “Gotti” has a stink of sleaze about it. No wonder Lionsgate planned to quietly dump the movie on-demand (the producers bought it back to spare it the indignity, negotiating with MoviePass for a wide release on June 15). Now, thanks to a lapse in judgment on the Cannes programmers’ part, they can claim to have premiered at the world’s most prestigious film festival.