February 14th, 2012

an offer they can't refuse

showing your id, and other ruminations on the failures of The Godfather Part III

I've been on a Godfather kick lately. I love those movies, man. They're just sweeping and epic and tragic, and I love them a lot.

Well, except for the third one, but we'll get to that later.

As part of rewatching the movies, I read the book for the first time ever. It's mostly good for straightening out all of the intrigue of the movie, and also for getting a look at the lurid, pulpy version of what the movie could have been. All of the stuff from the movie is there, of course. Coppola is incredibly faithful in that way, but like a master editor, he pulls out the parts of the book that aren't stupid and boils them down to their component parts. It doesn't hurt that he manages to assemble a crack cast, films the movies with a dark, lovely edge, and let's the actors and actions speak for themselves. The book relies so heavily on its narration (and often repetitious narration), it's so wonderful watching the actors internalize all those feelings, seeing them pass over their faces in a second instead of letting them linger for a few paragraphs.

The second one pulls sections from the book and fleshes them out, and it manages to continue Michael's story, showing even more of Michael's descent into sociopathy, and how it consumes his life. It's a little harder to love at first, compared to the first one. Where the first one is so straightforward in its character trajectories, the second one feels hazier, unfocused, moving along at a relaxed clip. The story is even more convoluted, but it's still besides the point, which is that the higher Michael tries to climb, the further he falls.

So anyway, I've been watching the director's commentary on the third movie, the weird step-child of the first two. It's definitely a huge step down, and to be fair, after those other two movies, it feels like anything would be. It's sort of strange, because you can see pieces of a good Godfather movie there, a lot of the themes of redemption and loss are good, powerful themes that fit very nicely and easily into the Godfather universe. It just doesn't quite fit together.

Contrary to popular belief, I don't think it's Sofia Coppola's performance that really sinks it. The story is too convoluted in a way we don't care about, the characters are like weird paper cut-outs of their old selves, and everything else feels like a weird Godfather knock-off and/or retread. Plus, Al Pacino's haircut makes zero sense. There are deeper problems at work here.

Coppola actually starts off his commentary by defending Michael's new 'do, and from there on, it becomes increasingly clear that this movie is (a) an attempt for Zoetrope to make back some of its money and Paramount rushed its production so that they could have their money in the bank and (b) all about Coppola's issues around aging and his own family. He defends the plot contrivance of Anthony (Michael's son) becoming an opera singer by talking about his own family of artists. He talks about how he cast Sofia because she's basically playing herself, because he based the character on her. He also talks about the way Paramount refused to give him six extra months (!!!!) to hammer out the story a little better with Mario Puzo.

I think with this movie, Godfather III, Coppola steps away from his previous work reinterpreting and whittling away at the original story and is making something far more personal and far more troubled because of it. Maybe it's just a matter of time (time since he last made a Godfather movie, time to work out the details and character beats), but the connections with the previous movies feel forced and insincere. And ultimately, I think that's because Coppola isn't making a Godfather movie. He's making a movie about himself, slapping the Godfather label on it, and trying to retroactively trying to convince us that they're supposed to be coherent.

The biggest issue is that I don't recognize this Michael. I feel like his attempts at redemption here should be powerful, should have resonance, but coming back to Pacino's hair (SERIOUSLY GUYS, LOOK AT THIS THING AND COMPARE IT TO WHAT CAME BEFORE), he doesn't look like Michael. He doesn't sound like Michael (this is after Pacino's voice started sounding like Pacino, brought on by a combo of cigarettes and yelling). He certainly doesn't act like the cold, precise, angry sociopath we see at the end of Part II, either. Pacino's performance is a lot more expressive, a lot less fierce. He's a patriarch of a family, for sure, but he also loses a lot of Michael's watchful intelligence too. There's a stillness to his performance of Michael in the first two movies that has almost entirely vanished here. I'm not sure whether or not that's because Pacino has changed too much as an actor or if it's because of Coppola's direction or if it's due to the aging of Pacino's face, since his wrinkles seem to magnify his expressions. It feels like a fundamentally different character without something to anchor us besides the fact that people keep calling him Michael.

Coppola tries to argue that so much time has passed that Michael is a different person now, that he's decided to go completely legit and hunt for redemption, but we don't understand why that's happened or how that happened. I think that would almost be a more interesting movie to see how Michael comes to that revelation, to see him force himself to change just that much to make redemption something he understands that he needs and that he craves. What makes the first two movies so haunting and tragic is that we can see exactly why Michael makes the choices that he does, even when they're the wrong ones. Here, we don't really understand this Michael, who he is or where he's coming from, so we don't feel connected to him. His tragedy feels shallow this time around, even if he loses far more. (Coppola also accuses a lot of the critics of the movie of unwilling to let Michael be human and flawed and weak, but I don't have a problem with seeing Michael weak so much as I have a problem with Michael changing without seeing or understanding the transition.) Also, now that I think about it, I do like the idea that Michael might be reaching for a younger, more innocent time, trying to reach back and find a version of himself that hasn't entirely been tainted by the family business, but the movie doesn't quite embrace that idea either. He completely abandons this other side of his 'family' but we don't understand why. He doesn't even bother covering his back as he tries to leave the business, which seems lazy and incredibly stupid.

On top of that, almost all of the other parts of the story feel muddled or incoherent but with so many interesting ideas underneath. The Vatican stuff could work like the Mafia politiciking of the first movies, a backdrop to the human drama, but there isn't enough human drama that ties into it. It's Michael's attempt at legitimacy, sure, but all of that gets drowned in how little we care about the actual machinations of the Church. Vincent Mancini's echoing of Michael's ascendancy doesn't really make any sense, as he's more Sonny than Michael or Vito, reckless to a fault. There's definitely an interesting story in him about the new generation of Scorcese-esque wiseguys in contrast to Michael's old-world nobility, how the old takes over the new. But a lot of his screentime gets eaten up in his relationship with Mary, and nothing about his relationship with Mary says much about him or her, certainly not enough to justify the romantic subplot or the themes it tries to introduce. Zasa feels cut from the same cloth as Vincent, and only he seems to stick around just to take up space. The stuff with Michael and Kay walking around Corleone works well by itself, but it doesn't really feel like it adds up to anything. I feel like I understand why Michael wants Kay back, why he's willing to forgive her, but I don't understand why she ever forgives him. I liked Connie's storyline, where she finds herself stepping up in the family now that it's just the two of them, but she also doesn't have enough story time to really sell the changes she's gone through. Her relationship with Michael feels too thin, when they should be even closer. They're the only two left, after all, now that Tom's dead too.

Coppola on his commentary talks about how he felt trapped making the same movie over and over again, with regards to making the third Godfather film, and he talks a lot about replicating the same scenes as an echo of earlier films. (This scene with Michael in the hospital is supposed to resemble the Don ending up in the hospital. This scene with Michael trying to get out of the business is supposed to resemble Don Vito's gathering of the Five Families.) While he has great ideas about the characters, he doesn't seem to understand that in a movie sequel, especially a movie sequel like this, consistency of character is far more important than consistency of form. We don't really need to see the same thing happen over and over again. We want to see how these characters grow and change (or fail to do so, in this case), but we have to be able to follow the changes and where they're going.

I think one other major thing that Coppola misses or at least, doesn't really acknowledge, is that people don't really want to see your id, even if your id is as tame as, "Man, Michael is me! I felt bad at this time! I was in the hospital once, too, and I was happy when my family came by and hugged me!" You need to be aware of how your id probably doesn't always translate to other people's ids. It needs to be properly filtered and acknowledged.

To be honest, I think there's a good movie in here somewhere. Definitely not one quite as sweeping and epic as the first two movies, but a good, quiet little movie abut a man who is looking back at what he's done and taking stock of it and trying to figure out if he can ever redeem himself. I just wish that was what we'd gotten instead of this mess.

Also, Michael Corleone with a crew cut. Seriously. WTF.

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