After a decade in the making, John Travolta’s passion project, a biopic of my lifetime’s most infamous gangster, hits screens with a splat. Already infamous for its 0% Rotten Tomatoes score, “Gotti” is sure to be listed alongside “Battlefield Earth” as an example of Travolta’s lack of cinematic acumen when it comes to flexing his own auteurial muscles. As reported, this is a debacle, though also not wholly without merit.
Bookended with the eponymous gangster lecturing the audience on “the life,” director Kevin Connelly, two screenwriters, and 28 producers zip through Gotti’s years of crime and infamy. “Goodfellas” it ain’t, though pic stumbles through a few moments blessed with genre pleasures, such as Gotti using a prison day pass to put a 9mm slug through the brainpan of a rival.
But the film ultimately proves uninterested with the minutia of Mafia life. This is probably because constantly showing Gotti engaged in violent felonies would undercut the reverential tone of his funeral in the third act. Instead, there are dozens of scenes where Gotti debates the business with his stooges, who include Pruitt Taylor Vince as his BFF and Spencer Lofranco as his beloved son, John Jr. (his participation with this film can certainly be credited for a fairly sanitized portrayal of him and his dad).
Travolta is suitably good in the quieter scenes, such as those moments where Gotti hardball negotiates with Mafioso to propel himself up the ranks, or when he plays the part of tough-but-loving father to his large brood. But he haphazardly lunges for goomba glory with moments that require him to ACT, such as when he breaks the fourth wall to lecture the audience on “the life.” Rather than count as striking, these scenes feel like pandering parody, begging for our respect with a thick New Yawk accent and a scowl.
The script can’t decide if it’s about Gotti or his son, leading to narrative whiplash every five minutes or so. But even more problematic is that the filmmakers don’t know how to capture the crime biopic magic that Martin Scorsese did with “Goodfellas” and “Casino,” their clearest inspirations here. Whereas those films were about gangsters who were still identifiable as outsiders (Henry Hill as half-Irish goon and Sam Rothstein as a Jewish businessman), whereas “Gotti” is a hagiographic portrayal of an unrepentant insider. He’s not the sort of guy who would want people to understand him, and the filmmakers aren’t up to imbuing his story with the narrative momentum and penetrating eye needed for it to work. The film doesn’t show a story so much as a Greatest Hits compliation, sometimes literally. Travolta’s Gotti ends up with the historical weight and depth of a Post-it Note.