There are exactly three interesting choices in “Gotti,” Kevin Connolly’s amateurish biopic about the late and legendary New York mobster, John Gotti. (Yes, E from “Entourage” directs movies. No, this isn’t the first one).
The first comes at you right off the top: Inverting an exhausted trend, Connolly opens the movie with footage of the actual people in the story, rather than saving it for the closing credits as per usual. It’s a smart move, if only because John Travolta’s performance is hammy enough that we need hard evidence he’s playing a real person (he plays the Teflon Don like a cross between Ray Liotta and Alec Baldwin’s impression of Donald Trump).
The second interesting choice is that some of the music was written by global superstar Pitbull. That’s right, the one and only Mr. Worldwide lends his talents to the film, which helps to explain why his hit 2012 song “Don’t Stop the Party” plays over a scene that takes place in 1984 (a deliberate anachronism in a cheap-looking film that expends zero energy attempting to capture accurate period detail). It doesn’t explain why the rest of the music in “Gotti” sounds like it was lifted from a daytime soap, but this isn’t really one of those movies where “things” make “sense.”
The third and final interesting choice here is that almost no shot in the film lasts for more than a couple seconds, and almost no scene goes on for more than a minute. Sure, that approach reduces “Gotti” to an incoherent jumble of mob history, but at least it doesn’t dawdle — it’s the “7-Minute Abs” version of “Goodfellas,” but somehow so much worse than that sounds.
Written by Lem Dobbs and Leo Rossi, and finding its way to screens after a long and circuitous process that peaked with Lionsgate selling the direct-to-video title back to its producers last December, “Gotti” is a low-rent sideshow from the moment it starts. Garish digital photography welcomes us to New York City, where a gray-haired Gotti turns to the camera and says: “As far as back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.”
Just kidding. We never get any kind of backstory about who he is, and what really forged him into the killer he would become. What he actually says is: “This life ends one of two ways: Dead, or in jail. I did both.” He did “dead?” Sure, Jan. Er, John. Wait, if he’s dead, then who’s talking to us? Did we just stumble into an undead John Gotti movie?
Alas, no such luck — the only supernatural thing about this film is the courage that must have been required to unveil it at Cannes, where it surfaced alongside a tribute to Travolta designed to look back on better roles.
From there, “Gotti” jumps into (and all around) its protagonist’s life as if at random. We first meet him in the mid-’70s as an ambitious enforcer for the Gambino crime family, and then leap ahead to the last years of his life in prison, where he’s dying from throat cancer (in a film that’s very light on personal details, it’s weird how much time it spends on the lumpy skin that surgeons used to rebuild the area around his mouth). Constantly shifting between Gotti’s rise and fall, the movie hops right over the one thing that could have actually given it some real weight, or at least some kind of focus: Gotti’s relationship with his son, John Gotti Jr. (an overly earnest Spencer Rocco Lofranco).
Connolly positions the strained love between these two men — a proud mafioso and a kid who regretfully followed in his father’s footsteps — as the heart and soul of this story. That makes sense, as the film was adapted from John Gotti Jr.’s memoir about his dad. And yet, “Gotti” is far too busy and erratic to hone in on that bond, or on any of the related themes it touches upon (loyalty, power, family, etc.). It plays like a wheezing accordion, as Connolly grab the story by both sides and squeezing it until the last bit of air has been forced out.
Travolta’s narration carries us through a torpid slipstream of bullet points in Gotti’s life, introducing us to one character after another after another after another, each new name hitting us with all the impact of a hyper-link on a Wikipedia page. Even the film itself seems to lose track of what it’s doing. At one point, Travolta asks us if we “remember” one of the hits Gotti committed — a hit that was contextualized as the first of his entire career, and shown to us roughly two minutes before. Then again, if Connolly had waited any longer to double back on that scene, there’s a good chance most viewers would have needed the reminder.
At least Travolta gets to have some fun chewing the scenery, as the actor clenches his jaw and gives us the full “Broken Arrow” in a pin-striped suit. He gets all the good lines (e.g. “If I robbed a church and had the steeple sticking out of my ass, I’d still say I didn’t do it!”), leaving the rest of the cast to just wait for their turn to deliver more exposition. But the cartoon vibe doesn’t square with some of the personal tragedies that Gotti has to go through over the years, even the most painful of which quickly fade into the background.
In fairness, it also doesn’t use them as emotional leverage on us, redeeming Gotti for his crimes. Despite asking you to root for its subject (and to remember that his crime family didn’t target civilians or film critics, which is a nice touch), Connolly’s biopic isn’t a hagiography. The problem is that it’s not really anything. This is a strange thing to say about a notorious mob boss who was locked up for murder, but John Gotti deserved better.
“Gotti” premiered as a special screening at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival. It will be released in theaters on June 15th.