John Travolta, trying earnestly to act his way through a ton of lousy makeup and an even heavier slab of bad screenwriting, plays mafioso John Gotti in this chaotic biopic that jumps all over the place but still fails to manifest a pulse. As the Teflon Don tells us upfront: “This life ends one of two ways: Dead, or in jail. I did both.” Audiences, sentenced to do time with this corpse of a movie, will know the feeling.
Here’s the thing: It didn’t have to be such a botch job. There’s real drama in this tale of the dapper mobster who became a media sensation as he moved from enforcer for New York’s powerful Gambino crime family to its ruthless boss. From his 1992 conviction for five murders, conspiracy to commit murder, racketeering, obstruction of justice, tax evasion, illegal gambling, extortion and loansharking to his 2002 death from throat cancer at the United States Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Springfield, Missouri, Gotti did a lot of depraved things, but he didn’t do dull. Not so director Kevin Connolly (that’s right, E from Entourage), who blunts every story edge by making a lifeless jumble of the already cut-and-paste script by Lem Dobbs and Leo Rossi.
Their biggest mistake was putting focus on the wrong Gotti. The source material for the film is the self-published memoir by John Gotti, Jr. (a flailing Spencer Rocco Lofranco), a chip off the old block who agonizes about taking a plea deal to get out of prison. Big Daddy is appalled: “If I robbed a church and had the steeple sticking out of my ass, I’d still say I didn’t do it!” It’s Junior’s rose-colored image of Gotti that we get here. The loving husband to pill-popping wife Victoria (Travolta’s real-life wife Kelly Preston), the proud dad of four who bites his knuckle in agony when a young son is killed by a reckless driver. And everyone who dies at his hand is worthless scum. Are you crying yet? Gotti’s only rival for mob sainthood is Gotti Jr., who the film argues got a raw deal and was justifiably released from prison after four racketeering indictments the courts couldn't make stick. For a while, I thought I was watching The Sopranos re-imagined as a tearjerker, as if this amateur tour of mobsterland – set in New York but shot in (dear God) Cincinnati – could even touch the artful menace of David Chase’s landmark HBO series.
The sad part is that under more astute guidance (Oscar winner Barry Levinson was once interested in directing), Travolta could have played the hell out of this complex role. He recently demonstrated solid acting chops with his Emmy-nominated turn as lawyer Robert Shapiro in The People v. O.J. Simpson. Even here, there are moments when Travolta – playing Gotti from the age of 30 to his death at 61– busts past the clichés. His prison scene, with what Gotti calls “a tit on his chin” following cancer surgery, has a crude potency. And when the film eases up on the gun violence, Travolta and Preston detail the ups and downs of a marriage dictated by a criminal family business. But fluttering hints of promise can’t save this shitshow. Near the end, the filmmakers offer real footage of testimonials from Gotti neighbors and friends. I’m guessing this is as close as Gotti the movie will ever get to good reviews.