What makes the art of storytelling so crucial to society? What turns movies and TV shows into experiences? Experiences worth devoting hours upon hours, days upon days, years upon years of our precious lives to appreciating? Robert Evans in “The Offer,” played with vigorous charisma by Matthew Goode, has the answer. Speaking to a board of investors, the Paramount Pictures vice president pleads for a stay of execution, despite his company’s struggles, by emphasizing the difference between what he does and what these “titans of industry” do for work.
“You have to feed their souls,” he says, walking around the boardroom in his big, black, block glasses and tan, crisp, California suit. “How do you do that? Well, that’s hard. Right now, the soul of America is broken. […] People don’t trust politics or big business, so what can Americans look up to? Well, I’ll tell you: Paramount. Take a look at the logo. We’re the mountaintop. We’re the goddamn Statue of Liberty — because you can give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, and we’ll give them two hours of respite from the harsh realities of this world. We’ll entertain them. We’ll give them escape. We’ll feed their souls until they’re fit to burst.”
It’s a good speech, and it does the trick. The board, led by Charles Bluhdorn (Burn Gorham), decides to keep Paramount in their portfolio, and thus keep Evans as its leader. Charlie even thinks back to Evans’ words when he goes to share the news at the set of Paramount’s next picture, “The Godfather.” Staring at Francis Ford Coppola and Al Pacino shooting an early scene of the future classic, the Gulf & Western executive is moved by what he sees. Evans’ voiceover plays in his memory: “We’ll feed their souls,” he remembers, and his cold, moneyed soul grows three sizes.
Again, it’s a good speech. Too good, really, since the show it’s written for is a soulless, vapid piece of Content™ that’s about as far removed from “art” as professionally produced television can get. Evans words are a fitting description of “The Godfather” — a provocative, gorgeous motion picture about American families (and so much more) — but they only emphasize what’s missing in “The Offer.” The Paramount+ limited series about the making of “The Godfather” isn’t actually about anything. Its purpose is to reduce subscriber churn (via 10 inflated hour-long episodes), stretch Paramount’s intellectual property to the nth degree, and remind viewers they can watch all three “Godfather” films on the very same platform. Evans’ promise to feed the public’s souls proves as relevant to “The Offer” as Michael Corleone’s promise to protect his own.
Best I can tell, there are three types of people who will watch “The Offer,” even though what’s waiting won’t work for any of them. There’s your casual fan of the film (who’d rather watch a show about making “The Godfather” than read one of many oral histories); there’s your cinephile scholar (who already knows how “The Godfather” was made but can’t resist a little New Hollywood nostalgia), or there’s your typical TV fan, drawn in by the handful of appealing cast members or an inside look at how movies are made.
Working backward, TV fans will certainly recognize their favorite stars, though they’re likely smart enough to also realize they’re being wasted or led astray. Miles Teller (aka Baby Goose in Paramount’s upcoming “Top Gun 2”) plays the series’ ostensible lead, Al Ruddy, a computer programmer who cooks up “Hogan’s Heroes” as an escape from his dull 9-to-5 desk job. But a writers’ room proves to similar to his old, stifling office environment, so he strikes out as a movie producer. With the help of his knowledgeable, well-connected secretary, Bettye McCartt (Juno Temple), and a quick friendship that earns Evans’ endorsement, Ruddy is soon flying to New York to pitch Charlie on his vision for “The Godfather” — a bestseller the studio bought on the cheap before it broke big and wants to produce for next-to-nothing because they think gangster movies are dead.
Most of “The Offer” is based around Ruddy solving problems. He wants Mario Puzo (Patrick Gallo) to take a crack at the script, but Paramount execs don’t trust authors to adapt their own material. He wants Francis Ford Coppola (Dan Fogler) to direct, but the indie-minded auteur is skeptical of the source material, genre, and studio. Then casting is a whole to-do, and the script is too long, and the dailies are too dark, and so on and so forth. “The Offer” confuses production challenges with meaningful drama, expecting viewers to invest in Al’s quest to make the movie simply because it’s… hard? All that’s at stake for the producer is this one job — not his career, which seems safe since he’s already planning future projects under Evans, nor his livelihood, which is already secure thanks to “Hogan’s Heroes” — and his vague allusions to wanting to do something “on his own” aren’t exactly enough to tug the ol’ heartstrings.
Courtesy of Paramount+
Evans’ arc has a bit more heart to it — thanks mainly to Goode’s all-in performance that bounces jubilantly between the hard-partying studio head’s ups and downs — but even Teller’s gravelly monotone further deadens the show’s inexpressive, uninteresting lead. Producers may often be the unsung heroes of many a project, but that by itself doesn’t make them compelling characters.
In an apparent attempt to remedy the production’s inconsequential story, series creator and writer Michael Tolkin (who wrote 1992’s “The Player,” a brilliant Hollywood black comedy you should absolutely watch instead of this) shoehorns in an overextended side plot about the Colombo crime family, the Italian-American Civil Rights League, and the man in the middle of both, Joe Colombo (Giovanni Ribisi). First a vocal opponent of the film, Joe is courted by Ruddy into becoming an ally, but befriending a mob boss can be just as risky as angering one, and the New York mafia’s presence looms large over the production. Ribisi plays the part like a foul-mouthed Kermit the Frog; he’s not particularly intimidating, but he’s not ineffectual either. Like the rest of “The Offer,” there’s just nothing at Joe’s center. Despite the voice, he’s too much of a Mafia caricature, and the scripts never provide him any distinguishing motivation.
For fans of “The Godfather,” a lot of what I’ve described is backed up by those well-reported oral histories, so casual fans of the film may learn a thing or two — like how the cat curled up on Marlon Brando (Justin Chambers) in the film’s opening scene wasn’t written into the script and actually interfered with the audio recording — but the way in which these details are captured makes it impossible to take anything at face value. Coppola and Puzo’s script discussions sound like someone picked a random scene and then regurgitated copy from the movie’s Cliff’s Notes. Actors play more famous actors like humorless “SNL” impressions. Every character says exactly what they’re thinking, whether it’s requisite exposition or fruitless backstory. There’s no authenticity to “The Offer” because it’s yet another Wikipedia page you can watch rather than read. Are Easter eggs still Easter eggs if they’re not only hiding in plain site, but bolded, highlighted, and underlined? And is it fun to spot them when you still can’t trust what you see?
This brings us back to “The Offer’s” inescapable downfall: its hollow core. Within “The Godfather’s” production story, there’s plenty to be said about what’s happened to the movie business since 1970. There’s a humorous ode to the industry’s overlooked artisans. There’s a pitch-black satire about how capitalism and artistry don’t play nice. There’s a sincere tribute to the magic of movie-making built around a detailed admiration for the work (and luck) required to produce a perfect motion picture. “The Offer” is none of these. It’s not trying to be anything beyond an easy-to-follow, very long advertisement for “The Godfather” trilogy, Paramount, and more precious I.P. extensions already in the pipeline. It makes zero attempt to feed anyone’s soul — just the all-consuming content pipeline that’s drowning out great television.
Courtesy of Paramount+
At one point, late in the series, Al Ruddy is walking home with Rosie, a designer he meets at a nightclub. While trying to explain what he does, Al starts talking about art. He doesn’t know how or why, but he knows it inspires him.
“You don’t have to know anything about art to appreciate it,” Rosie tells him. “Did you ever see the moon landing? Well, how do the rockets work? How did they land? How did they know how to make their way back to this tiny planet? I don’t know either. But we don’t have to know. We can just enjoy the spectacular wonder of it all.”
It’s true, you don’t have to know anything about how art is made to appreciate it. But what Evans reminds us of and “The Offer” fails to understand is that the people who make art should understand how it works and why they’re doing it. Otherwise, there’s nothing to wonder at whatsoever.
“The Offer” premieres three episodes Thursday, April 28 on Paramount+. New episodes will be released weekly.