The year’s worst news involved a faux-populist New York criminal who talks tough and breaks every law in his vicinity in order to attain wealth, amass power, and feed his endlessly hungry ego. Thus, it’s fitting that the year’s worst movie was also about a man just like that—although, unlike our reigning tweeter-in-chief, at least it delivers a healthy dose of unintentional humor.
Heaping love and admiration upon the infamous crime boss John Gotti, Gotti validates the oft-heard criticism that mob movies invariably glorify their subjects. Only a member of the Gotti (or Gambino) crime family could buy the absurdist nonsense peddled by this preposterous and wholly wrongheaded venture, which is directed by Kevin Connolly with about as much subtlety and skill as one might expect from the guy who played “E” from Entourage. A mind-bogglingly effusive celebration of NYC’s last true Mafia kingpin, it’s a film led by a John Travolta performance that wouldn’t make it through your average Saturday Night Live dress rehearsal, and marked by a ceaseless stream of hilarious musical cues. Come for the mortifying “whatsa matta witchyoo?” dialogue, stay for the inexcusable end-credits Pitbull single.
Mr. Worldwide’s cheesiness proves an ideal closing note for this embarrassing affair, which begins with Travolta’s John Gotti, sporting a big head of combed-back gray hair, turning away from the Brooklyn Bridge at night to directly address the audience: “Let me tell you sumpin’—New Yawk City is the greatest fockin’ city in the world. My city. I was a kid in these streets. I started in the fockin’ gutter, and I made it to the top. This life ends one of two ways: dead or in jail. I did both.”
And with that, Connolly is off and running into Grand Stereotype Station, as Gotti overflows with so many awful Italian accents, it comes across as borderline bigoted. “I’m gonna axe you again,” Gotti says during one of many conversations with people he likes to call “youz guyz.” In narration, he informs us that “you wanna hurt someone so bad they never come backatcha”—because, of course, “dat’s da life.” And when his wife Victoria (Kelly Preston) confronts him about tabloid headlines suggesting that their son John Jr. (Spencer Lofranco) might be next in line for a whacking, she screams at him, “It’s on da covah of da paypah!”
Speaking of Junior, Gotti is a project designed for two purposes: first, to glorify Gotti himself as the greatest of all mobsters, full of wisdom about La Cosa Nostra (his favorite phrase, which as you probably know is Italian for “da life!”); and second, to exonerate his oldest son for cutting a plea deal in exchange for a reduced sentence. In a sequence to which the film repeatedly cuts back, Junior meets with his imprisoned, cancer-stricken father to discuss his choice, knowing full well that it goes against everything Gotti holds dear. Gotti vehemently counsels against this decision but, in the end, gives in, because Leo Rossi and Lem Dobbs’ script is determined to absolve Junior of any wrongdoing, lest he even slightly resemble a Sammy “The Bull” Gravano-style rat. In fact, its climax—part courtroom sermon, part textual coda—goes so far as to argue that Junior was a victim of government persecution (because they reneged on their agreement and kept trying to lock him up), as well as a courageous and loyal soldier for sticking it to the Feds.
That’s almost as bad as Gotti’s farewell words to his boy, which are impressive for being so corny: “You do whatchoo have to do. And don’t worry about me. It doesn’t make sense. What will be will be. You stand up strong, witchyor head up. Don’t cry. Don’t let them have the satisfaction.” It’s a laugh-riot moment only rivaled by an earlier, even more truism-laced monologue by Stacy Keach’s Dellacroce: “Attack from the outside, you can deal with. But attack from the inside? You’re history. Once you take that first step, there’s no turning back. You either succeed, or you’re lost in enemy territory. And if you miss, you die. And all your friends will die.”
The film does its best to make sure Gotti comes off as a noble and ruthless warrior-leader who—as spelled out by an early scene involving a little old lady who needs help with her groceries and later TV news interviews with local fans—was good for the community because he only killed his own and kept a lid on neighborhood crime. In a variety of double-breasted suits, Travolta portrays the protagonist by employing a squinty, scrunched-up expression, flailing hand gestures, and a lot of over-enunciated “mothafockas!” It’s a turn that’s broad and cartoonish to the point of being riotously funny. That’s also an accurate way of describing his supporting cast, be it Pruitt Taylor Vince as right-hand man Angelo Ruggiero (who dies of a broken heart because he’s kicked out of “da life!”), or the giant wig that does all of Preston’s work for her. Only Lofranco doesn’t overact here, because he can’t act at all, coming across as the human equivalent of a giant block of granite.
Armed with a screenplay that’s morally repugnant on top of being slapdash and ridiculous, Connolly dramatizes the proceedings with more Scorsese-aped camera moves than might be found in a freshman student film, and why he refuses to age Lofranco for his 1999 prison sit-down with Travolta (who’s encased in old-man make-up) is anyone’s guess. Worse—and funnier—is his use of inapt and/or on-the-nose soundtrack needle drops for crucial incidents. When Gotti struts down the courtroom steps after another not-guilty verdict, it’s “Walk Like an Egyptian”; as Gotti’s funeral procession makes its way through Queens, it’s “House of the Rising Sun”; during Junior’s wedding, it’s Al Jolson’s “Little Pal” (sample lyrics: “Little pal if daddy goes away / Promise you’ll be good from day to day / Do as Mother says and never sin / Be the man your Daddy might have been”); and when Gotti, on a jail furlough, visits a hotel to assassinate some guy, it’s the... “Theme From Shaft?”
Then there’s Pitbull’s “Amore,” which features classic rhymes like: “There’s rules and codes / You don’t break them for no one / Unless you’re a fool like that fucking prick Sammy the Bull.” Such jackhammer-grade bluntness is emblematic of a film that repeatedly smacks you in the face with dim-bulb pronouncements and second-hand mob executions while also using archival news reports about Gotti’s crimes that only serve to underline his actual real-world monstrousness.
“Listen to me, and listen to me good. You never gonna see another guy like me if you live to be five thousand,” Travolta’s Teflon Don boasts in the final scene. With any luck, we’ll never see another mob-movie misfire like this either.