My World of Flops An Offer You Can Refuse Case File #112/My Year of Flops II #9 Gotti (2018)
There are bad movies and then there’s 2018’s Gotti. The Kevin Connolly-directed late-period John Travolta vehicle about a vicious, bloodthirsty and murderous mob kingpin who was also apparently the greatest, most noble man ever to live was a bona fide bad movie event, a low-level pop culture phenomenon that screamed its historic awfulness from the mountains.
The movie earned, and I do mean EARNED, the dreaded zero rating at Rotten Tomatoes, meaning that, technically speaking, nobody likes it, everybody hates it and it should go eat some worms.
The movie’s cult Twitter account went rouge and, in a very Trumpian turn of events, decided that if the critics were going to go in on Gotti just for being astonishingly awful then they were going to turn the tables and review the reviewers, criticize the critics, stick it to “The Man” and his stuffy insistence that a movie literally every critic disliked was somehow not good.
The Twitter account tried to promote the fiction that stuffy gate-keepers were trying to keep Gotti down but “the people” wouldn’t let them, asking “Audiences loved Gotti but critics don’t want you to see it… The question is why??? Trust the people and see it for yourself!”
A TV ad went further, baiting an audience conditioned to see film critics as snobby elites, “Audiences loved Gotti…Critics put out the hit….Who Would You Trust More? Yourself or a Troll Behind a Keyboard.”
But what if you ARE a troll behind a keyboard, as I am? To very tardily answer the indignant commercial’s rhetorical question, the reason critics told audience not to see Gotti is because it literally is their job to tell audiences whether movies are good or not. They would be remiss in their duties if they did not inform the public of Gotti’s astonishing, often hilarious ineptitude.
Speaking of either/or propositions that aren’t actually either/or propositions, we begin the movie with a 64-year old John Travolta playing a man who died at 61 and appeared to be closer in height to someone like Danny Devito standing in front of the Brooklyn Bridge addressing the audience directly, like Ray Liotta in Goodfellas.
Visually, the shot is framed more like an ad for the Travolta Family Farms line of Mango-infused wine spritzers than the opening of a crime epic.
Sounding entirely too pleased with himself, Travolta, as a figure I will subsequently refer to as Non Gotti sneers, “Let me tell you something, New York is the greatest fucking city in the world. My city. I was a kid in these streets. I started in the fucking gutter. I made it to the top. This life ends one of two ways: dead, or you’re in jail. I did both.”
As the wonderful Elliott Kalan of The Flop House has pointed, death and jail are not mutually exclusive. You’re not going to live forever as long as you’re in prison. There aren’t six hundred year old people in jail doing thousand year sentences. Getting convicted does not grant you the power of immortality.
As Elliott probably also noted (he’s a sharp guy), Gotti is a shameless Goodfellas knock-off that seems to have gotten the film’s message backwards. The whole point of Goodfellas is to really drive home that the world of organized crime is a disgusting. amoral cesspool filled with racists, wife-beaters and murderers.
Gotti, in sharp contrast, argues that, actually, the mafia is really cool and great and, if anything, overly moral, with its codes of conduct and everything. In Gotti, the mafia is portrayed as a force for good in the universe and Gotti as a God among men.
Gotti doesn’t dramatize its subject’s life so much as it nominates him for Sainthood. I’m guessing they went with the name Gotti because it’s a brand name for organized crime but also because the title World’s Greatest Dad was already taken, for a movie I will probably be writing up for Sub-Cult 2.0 in the not too distant future.
We learn just what an amazing father and human being this notorious murderer was in sequences where a dying, cancer-ridden but still deeply noble Gotti talks to his son in prison and explains at length how he would rather be set on fire and be in excruciating pain every second for the rest of his life than see his son contract as much as a head cold or mild headache even once.
In these unintentionally hilarious sequences, Travolta looks less like an old, fragile man dying of a fatal illness than like Darth Vader without his helmet while his soon looks like he was kicked out of Color Me Badd for stealing everybody’s hair gel and not learning the choreography.
But if Travolta face looks like the make-up artist is low-key testing out designs for Skeletor in a He-Man reboot on Travolta the nobility of his beautiful mind remains pure. Oh sure, he murders a lot of people, and orders the murders of even more and robs and cheats and steals but does that necessarily make him a bad person? Or a criminal? Gotti’s not so sure. Is he a bad guy or a hero? Gotti leans heavily towards “hero.”
The makers of Gotti secured the rights to the life story of John “Junior” Gotti, which helps explain why the movie views the notorious criminal through the uncritical, fawning adoration of a son worried he will never be able to live up to his father’s legend.
Gotti is many things in Gotti. He’s the don of dons, the boss of bosses. He represents the pure-hearted goodness of the Mafia. He’s a family man who could not be more devoted to his wife and family, who would rather be castrated and tarred and feathered than miss even one Little League game. But more than anything he’s just a great guy, a family guy, a stand-up guy, but just because he devoted his entire life to committing crimes, an over-zealous, power-hungry government insisted on treating him like some manner of criminal.
Gotti depicts Gotti going to jail as a terrible injustice that speaks volumes about the legal system and law enforcement instead of reflecting on Gotti’s life as a murderous criminal. Gotti stops just short of depicting its subject as a political prisoner, the Nelson Mandela of mob kingpins unfairly sent to prison solely because of his many crimes.
Gotti feels like it was directed by the character of E from Entourage rather than Kevin Connolly, the actor who breathed life into his delicate soul. It’s a half-assed mash-up of Queens Boulevard and Medellin executed with lots of macho swagger and something approaching total incompetence.
At the risk of being harsh, E from Entourage is, in many ways, a lesser storyteller and filmmaker than Martin Scorsese, whose Goodfellas this resembles in every way other than quality. Gotti is so derivative of Scorsese’s game-changing masterpiece that I can see some sleazy DVD distributor somewhere cynically packaging Gotti as Goodfellas II: The Next Boss.
To give a sense of Connolly as a visual storyteller, halfway through the film we see a car driven by someone we’ve never seen before making its way down the road. When an unfamiliar car takes center stage in a movie or TV show we know exactly what that means. We’re never introduced to a random person’s car for the sake of following that person, and their car, to the drive-in at Starbucks to pick up a Frappuccino, and then back to the office safely.
No, if we’re introduced to a random car that’s because the car isn’t so random after all and will almost undoubtedly be playing a big, tragic role in what follows. When Connolly juxtaposes this mystery car with shots of Non Gotti’s 12 year old son Frankie doodling around in the middle of the street on his bike like a real dumbass, just waiting to get run over, it’s immediately apparent what role the car will play: it’ll run over this unfortunate kid, devastating his dad permanently in the process. All you need is a shot of the car, and one of Frankie on the bicycle and then the aftermath to establish what happened but Connolly, being an almost impressively dreadful filmmaker stretches out the would-be suspense of this scene to perverse, ridiculous and counter-productive lengths. The poor kid seemingly spends a full minute doing donuts in the middle of the street in anticipation of his ultimate fate. When the big, life-changing crack-up occurs, it inspires unintentional laughter instead of the intended shock and horror.
When Non Gotti, who earned the nickname “The Teflon Don” despite getting arrested and sent to jail fairly often for his many horrible crimes, finally goes away for the long haul after a judge sentences him to five consecutive life sentences plus fifty dollars in court fees, Gotti doesn’t seem bummed at all.
In the kind of acting choice that makes Travolta’s turn truly Golden Raspberry-worthy, he musters up a corny grin and says, “The five lifetime bids, that’s okay, but the 50 surcharge, you really know how to stick it to a guy!”
The delight in Travolta’s delivery suggests that getting sentenced to die a lonely death in prison is worth it for the hilarious dad joke of complaining about a fifty dollar court fee rather than the prison sentence that will keep him from being able to go to his children and grandchildren’s graduations and weddings.
Non Gotti is the world’s best dad and second best human being. How is he going to avoid a dad joke that irresistible?
Alas, the world did not deserve a saint like John Gotti, because when Non Gotti turns around to soak in the explosive laughter his wisecrack was sure to inspire he’s met with but a smattering of chuckles.
The man was the most powerful mobster in the world and had just been sentenced to five consecutive lifetime sentences. If that doesn’t merit a pity laugh, I don’t know what does. C’mon, the dude’s gonna die in prison of cancer! Plus, it’s a pretty good gag, a little obvious, of course, and delivered a little clumsily.
Gotti intermittently shows us glimpses of the real John Gotti in news footage and screaming newspaper headlines of the time. These montages serve no purpose except to underline how staggeringly miscast Travolta was in the role, how little he resembles the tiny little man he is playing so ineptly.
Gotti ends where it begins, with John Travolta in front of the Brooklyn Bridge, once again speaking on behalf of the Travolta Family line of quality Wine Spritzers for single moms and mafia fans. I kid, of course, not unlike John Gotti with that fun bit about the 50 dollar fee being the really tough part of his sentence.
No, Travolta as Non Gotti ends the movie where it begins to brag, “Listen to me, and listen to me good. You’re never gonna see another guy like me if you live to be 5,000.”
As with the words that opened the film, this line of braggadocio is so idiotic and self-evidently false that you want to scream in both horror and joy at the screen, “What the motherfuck are you talking about? I’m forty-two years old and I have literally seen 5000 guys like you in movies. There are a fuck ton of you in every mafia movie, of which there are a fuck-ton. In fact, I’ve seen a guy like you named Henry Hill a whole bunch of times in this movie called Goodfellas you may be familiar with.”
Within the context of the movie, Non Gotti’s closing boast about being one of a kind and unprecedented in the history of mafia movies feels like a set-ending mic drop from an open mic comedian who mumbles incomprehensibly for five minutes, then pisses themself in fear and nervousness: a little unearned.
But if the subject of Gotti is most assuredly not a figure we’ve never encountered before and will never encounter again, even if we live to be five thousand years old, there is nevertheless something special about Gotti. Though boring at times, the movie really lives up and down to its dreadful reputation.
Gotti was such a weird cultural phenomenon that Travolta seemed to get as much attention for starring in one dreadful movie as his Face/Off costar Nicolas Cage did for appearing in, or lending his voice and weirdness to four good ones (Mandy, Mom and Dad, Teen Titans Go! To the Movies and Into The Spider-Verse).
That’s not quite accurate, however, as Travolta did more than just show the world who’s boss with Gotti; he also starred in something called Speed Kills in 2018, which doesn’t have anywhere near the buzz or reputation of Gotti but will nevertheless be the next entry here in My World of Flops, where we've been honored Travolta’s unique contributions to film for over a decade.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Fiasco
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