Gotti ★½

Until I was ten, my dad's main source of income was from bartending, and for several years in that period he worked at a place in Downtown Brooklyn that was a brisk walk from the borough's various courthouses. This is relevant for two reasons: the main one is a prize anecdote starring my dad's friend and coworker Jimmy, wherein during a particularly busy day at the restaurant John Gotti and retinue came in seeking strong drink and a bite to eat, only to be told by Jimmy that there were no tables. "Well *make* a fuckin' table," one of Gotti's companions said. "What do I look like, a fuckin' carpenter?" Jimmy said, looking him dead in the eye. There was a brief moment, Jimmy said, where everything went a bit cold and silent and John Gotti had a vaguely dumb and belligerent look on his face and Jimmy thought "oh shit am i going to be killed" before Gotti grunted and turned to leave. (Jimmy was not killed by John Gotti, and had a good fifteen years of telling this story every time he had more than 3.5 beers before passing away of an untimely heart attack at far too young an age. I really liked Jimmy.)

The second reason I opened by mentioning this period in my dad's bartending career was that, due to the courthouse being close by, a number of other gentlemen most often referred to in legal proceedings as "organized crime affiliates" drank at this place, and they liked my dad because he had an American Boomer hipster streak of the Irish gift for gab, and he was sufficiently titillated in just the right kind of way with their line of work that he earned the status of "he's arright, this guy," which is not an insignificant honor. It was amidst this camaraderie that more than a bit of gangster gossip took place, a considerable amount of which centered on John Gotti being a really stupid asshole who nobody outside of his immediate family and the most loyal members of his own crew actually even liked.

Gotti's myth has always owed more to projection than reality. The kind of people who find gangsters glamorous, who don't like the fucking cops, who enjoy the multivalent ironic love/hate relationship New Yorkers have with tacky nouveau riche hustlers, who are prone to the more diabetic strains of nostalgia, and who both print the legend and don't understand that reference, are in danger of revering John Gotti. Whereas in reality he was a shithead who murdered his boss because that was his only means of career advancement, and who subsequently spent almost the entire remainder of his career under indictment because literally almost everyone he dealt with on a daily basis was a federal informant, in legend Gotti was a go-getter who the fucking cops could never pin a rap on, the 1980s' iconic gangster, whose very name was so powerful kids in the schoolyard would say "I'm gonna get John Gotti afta you!" in full seriousness (well, until they turned 12, but still).

The Gotti of GOTTI (2018, Connolly) is very much this legend, and the most amazing thing about the movie is its complete absence of any kind of perspective on its subject. It is a movie written, directed, and largely acted out by a (figurative) 15-year-old who still threatens to "get John Gotti afta you!" while his (figurative) classmates avoid eye contact. It's an astoundingly credulous piece of work, presenting a Gotti who ambles around Da Neighbahood talking about murders with his stunad buddies at the top of his lungs, but when he sees an old lady pushing her shopping cart, instructs one of his guys to "help her," whereupon the guy puts his hand on her back and kind of pushes her down the street or something. Everyone in Da Neighbahood is presented as having a starry-eyed, worshipful attitude toward Gotti as a great community leader who, sure, maybe cuts a couple corners here and there, but the important thing is he takes care of his own et cetera et cetera.

The "couple corners" he cuts here and there consist mostly of sitting around in rooms talking about how he never liked such and such guy whose name is semi-recognizable to the dwindling number of people with photographic memories of New York crime news from thirty years ago, as the only two times we see John Gotti proactively do any actual gangster shit are two murders where he waddles up to two consecutive unfortunates and shoots them at point blank range in the face in front of witnesses, whom he neglects to even bribe, let alone threaten (my best guess, since the witnesses to both murders were women, is that this is meant to establish that Gotti only kills men who are In The Life, rather than indiscriminately killing innocents, which one is supposed to be rather more impressed than one actually is by). On the first of these two occasions, the living witness goes right to the cops, and Gotti goes right to jail. The entire rest of the movie consists of tautological moralizing and a mirthless, sexless Gotti sitting in underlit rooms in which someone has apparently, perpetually just farted, saying "I neva liked dat guy" about someone who later, in real life, turned snitch, with the exception of a bunch of scenes that are---again, I can only guess---supposed to establish John Gotti, Jr. as the tragic hero of some Aeschylian saga about how the fucking cops just have a vendetta against honest legitimate businessmen.

This is, I apologize, a deeply buried lede, but GOTTI is one of the funniest goddamn movies of the decade. The director, Kevin Connolly, who played someone named Molly or MDMA or something on ENTOURAGE, encourages a particularly lugubrious mise-en-scene wherein every actor looks like they've spent the last eight hours pounding anisette and GHB (with the exception of one barroom brawl where John Jr. and his shithead friends look like they snorted their way into Manhattan from Queens on one continuous line of blow), and where no room in the entire New York tri-state area has properly functioning lights, and where despite the frame being 2.35:1 everyone is constantly jammed into an area six inches square somewhere just off dead center.

What the cast get up to under these trying circumstances is the special bit. John Travolta, under the hilariously mistaken impression that this is his Oscar role, summons all available gravitas to spend an hour and forty-five minutes reading fortune cookies out loud and occasionally get riled up enough to call someone a "muddafucka." He and the entire rest of the cast spend the entire movie in the same mildly stunned state, in which everyone's cerebral cortex seems to be detached from the rest of their nervous system; while everyone seems wholly committed, most of the cast seems to be a bit confused as to why they were hired (notably Pruitt Taylor Vince, in one emotional scene where you can see him recognize his own accent slip, pause as if he expects someone to call "cut," and then figure "fuck it" and continue the rest of a significant chunk of text in his native Louisiana accent.) Despite the pervasively poleaxed acting, everyone looks more or less period-appropriate, with the glaring exception of John Jr., who sports a laser-specific 2010s haircut and no age makeup whatsoever, so he appears to be around twenty-two years old from the time he's a teenager until middle age.

The laughs die out some time before the movie ends, which it does with startling abruptness and the implication that John Jr. spends the rest of his life in prison, which he has not. I couldn't figure out why it does this, though the periodic peppering of anachronistic references to the current president of the United States are not difficult to decipher. Despite the weird tone and the occasional inconsistencies like Gotti hating the fucking cops yet being proud that his son briefly attends military school, this movie is pretty clearly aimed at a very specific kind of Trump supporter, which seems to be aging residents of New York City's outer boroughs with a woozily ahistorical sense of the way "things usedta fuckin be" that includes a fractionally choate sense of John Gotti as "a real man." Since this movie is for them, I do hope they enjoy it.

I did, albeit in a slightly different sense.