A Few Questions We Have After Watching John Travolta’s New John Gotti Biopic

Photo: Vertical Entertainment

Twenty years ago, news that John Travolta — then resurgent, still riding the second wind that Pulp Fiction had given his career — was starring in a biopic treatment for one of the most infamous men to have ever lived would have heralded a capital-E Event. Today, however? The John Gotti chronicle, matter-of-factly titled Gotti, arrives in a paltry 503 theaters to minimal fanfare and underwhelming box-office grosses, the anticlimactic culmination of a long and calamitous journey through development.

The original plan was for Lionsgate to dump the picture straight to on demand for December 15 of last year, until the distributor pulled out ten short days prior to the slated release and sold the rights back to the producers. By spring, they would find saviors in Vertical Entertainment (the fine folks who brought us Undercover Grandpa) and the stunningly insolvent, surprisingly still operational MoviePass. The storm clouds of behind-the-scene dysfunction had this critic eager to see the film at its world premiere out of competition at the Cannes Film Festival; imagine my disappointment when the press screenings were quietly canceled, leaving only an exclusive gala screening a scant few members of the press could sneak into. And all the while, the darkest pallor of all: accusations of sexual battery leveled against Travolta by a 21-year-old masseur. For a public that perhaps no longer wishes to watch Travolta, perhaps a theatrical run this unceremonious qualifies as giving the people what they want.

But the most self-destructively driven members of the press corps procured screener copies of Gotti all the same, and it is, let’s say, something of a misfire. (Not, like, Battlefield Earth–level or anything. But not great.) Though it is more frequently a confusing film than a straightforwardly bad one, leaving a viewer with lingering questions that Vulture has attempted to sort through below. Read on for inquests concerning rapping sensation Pitbull, the dimensional mechanics of Entourage, and a possible reinvention of the cinematic medium:

Could this be a covert trailblazer of attention-deficit cinema?
Far and away the most disorienting aspect of Gotti is the breakneck editing that makes the dizzying jump over a fence from Taken 3 look coherent by comparison. The average length of a scene hovers somewhere between one minute and 90 seconds, and to make matters even more complicated, the script freely pinballs all over the timeline of its subject’s life. One moment, Gotti’s a hungry young gun rising in the family on virtue of his ruthlessness, the next, he’s reigning as a mad king during his time at the top of the Gambino organization, and the next, he’s a cancer-ravaged old man withering away in prison. The scenes fly by as if selected from a giant wheel, and all the audience can do is hold on for dear life.

Structurally speaking, Gotti has more in common with the endless scroll of Instagram or the compilations of discrete, bite-size Vines currently gathering virtual dust on YouTube than proper cinema. Any discomfort during this viewing experience may in actuality be the birth pangs of a new cinematic mode, a style attuned to an era in which attention spans shrink en masse at alarming speeds. Consider it Hollywood’s answer to the paradox of viewers who will gladly sit for a mini-binge of four half-hour episodes rather than a 90-minute movie; an experience that treats stagnation like a mortal enemy, that moves with the tirelessness of a shark certain that remaining still even for a moment will kill it.

Whence Mr. 305?
Any Goodfellas ripoff worth its cannolis needs to have the solid-gold soundtrack to match, and the music supervisors of Gotti have succeeded in assembling just the playlist to match the “Kirkland Signature–brand Scorsese” vibe. Every time a moment needs a bit of gravitas, some left-field pop cut drops in on the soundtrack to make the audience wonder just how much of what must have been a modest budget went to music rights. As the untouchable Teflon Don strides out of a courthouse having once again evaded the long arm of the law, the Bangles’ “Walk Like an Egyptian” twangs over the action. When Gotti goes for the classic mob-flick move of beckoning an enemy outside just in time to watch their car blow up, the bouncy New Wave hit “West End Girls” makes for a weird counterpoint.

And yet none of it is quite so strange as the preponderance of music from one Armando Christian Perez, a.k.a. Pitbull, a.k.a. Mr. 305, a.k.a. Mr. Worldwide, a.k.a. the composer of this motion picture’s score. While all non-Pitbull accompaniments to the film roughly correspond to the period of their Zeitgeist, the original works from Miami’s Mr. Clean stick out as a glorious anachronism. As John indulges in another bender of vice following his latest acquittal, Pitbull’s “Don’t Stop the Party” booms over the loudspeakers, for indeed, the last thing he wants is for this party to stop. The real John Gotti died in 2002, long before the Dale! lifestyle had taken the world by storm, but in transcending time and reframing himself as the biggest artist of 1984, Pitbull earns his “Anne Frank would have been a Belieber” moment.

Are we all living inside an episode of Entourage?
What I’ve neglected to mention thus far is that this picture was directed by Kevin Connolly, the journeyman helmer behind such low-profile indies as Gardener of Eden (in which a postgrad slacker inadvertently captures a serial rapist and stumbles into a career of vigilantism) and Dear Eleanor (in which a pair of gal pals ventures cross-country in 1962 to meet Eleanor Roosevelt in a wholesome alternative to Thelma and Louise). But to the general public, Connolly’s better known as the diminutive punching bag dubbed “E” on HBO’s bro-beloved Tinseltown satire Entourage. While Gotti having been directed by E from Entourage would be a fascinating, mystifying detail in and of itself, the peculiarities of the situation run far deeper than that.

Much of Entourage’s fourth season was dominated by the fictitious production of Medellín, an expensive Pablo Escobar biopic taken on as a passion project by golden boy Vinny Chase that drew dismal reviews and bombed out of Cannes. The 2015 Entourage movie concerned Chase’s uphill battle to make the jump to directing, as his EDM-themed Jekyll-and-Hyde movie (just move past it) drew offscreen troubles verging on the Gotti-esque. All of which is to say that by the time Connolly’s real-world directorial effort rolls the credits, the viewer has to wonder just how real this world is. Maybe it’s just the cameo appearance from Rhys Coiro, who played temperamental Medellín director Billy Walsh, but there’s no way to conclusively prove that our present reality isn’t a B-plot on Entourage. It would really explain a lot, beyond the simple existence of Gotti. The Trump presidency, Kim Kardashian West taking policy meetings, the fall of Harvey Weinstein, the Academy Awards announcement mix-up, Stormy Daniels’s ascent to the role of people’s champion — it’s all just Entourage.

A Few Questions We Have After Watching Gotti