I mentioned last week that my wife and I recently worked our way through the Godfather trilogy. The most surprising thing about that experience was that, strictly on average, the series itself isn’t that good. The first film is a cinematic masterpiece, of course—a movie that but for its rather slapdash approach to chronology could quite reasonably be called perfect. Part II, however, is surprisingly not all that good, and Part III is an absolute mess, the kind of movie one is embarrassed at even having seen, let alone taken any part in making.
The general consensus of Part II seems to be that it is better than the first—a really kind of outlandish claim on its face. The second film, of course, is missing the gold-caliber performances of both Marlon Brando and (almost entirely) James Caan; to a lesser extent, Abe Vigoda and Richard Castellano are missed as well. Michael Gazzo is meant to be a stand-in for the latter, and he is not terrible in that regard, but there is something endlessly charming about Castellano’s portly, cheerfully exhausted Clemenza that doesn’t carry over into Frank Pentangeli.
Quite apart from that, Part II is kind of a cinematic mess. The flashback scenes depicting the rise of Vito Corleone’s criminal empire are quite captivating, but the present-day frame that follows a deflated, depressed Michael Corleone in the twilight of that same empire have a weird, haphazard quality to them. Nothing really seems to fit; character motivations are never explained all that well; many scenes begin and end in an odd, clumsy sort of way. The famous Senate hearing in particular is presented in blunderbuss fashion, coming out of nowhere and disappearing almost as quickly. The film is not without its significant merits, but on the whole it’s a wash, redeemed only slightly by De Niro’s uniquely excellent performance as young Vito.
It is not at all clear why Part II is so often held in higher esteem than the first. There is something funny about cultural narratives—they get a certain way and they stay that way. Citizen Kane is often hailed as the greatest movie of all time; it’s not, not at all, though it is quite good. Fast food is sort of similar—everyone says, “Oh, it’s totally garbage, but it tastes so good,” but in fact fast food really doesn’t taste good at all, and in most cases tastes really bad. Some things stick even when they’re not true, as with the inexplicable contention that The Godfather Part II is somehow above its predecessor.
Thankfully nobody made the same mistake with The Godfather Part III, which is truly a dismal movie, a clunky, uninteresting, boring lump of a movie, the cinematic equivalent of a can of wet dog food slowly blorping out of its can and splattering onto the floor with a moist plop. Gone is the captivatingly gentile brutality of the Corleone empire at its peak, the magic vanished world of the gangster 1940s, the romantic flashbacks to the immigrant-laden slum streets of turn-of-the-century New York; gone even is the sad but still somewhat engaging saga of Michael Corleone desperately trying to hold onto his disintegrating family and his existential relevance. Part III is a film without very much reason at all; its only purpose seems to be to serve as a vehicle for clumsy, uninteresting callbacks to the earlier films.
The dynamite cast of the first film, and the still-strong cast of the second, has been winnowed down to just three of the original players (four if you count Al Martino as an aging Johnny Fontaine; five if you toss in Frano Citti as well). As a belated replacement for Sonny Corleone, we have his illegitimate son Vincent, played by a smirking, largely unconvincing Andy Garcia. There are a bunch of priests in the movie, because…well, who knows? Don Tommasino makes an appearance before taking a shotgun blast to the face,. Franc D’Ambrosio’s primary narrative role as Anthony Corleone is to turn the famous Godfather theme song into a Sicilian canzone. Diane Keaton wanders in and out of the film; nobody cares. An archbishop is shot by…Al Neri, I think…because, well, again, nobody knows or cares.
But the principle disaster of Part III has to be the acting of Sofia Coppola as Mary Corleone, in what may be the worst big-budget-movie performance of the last fifty years. There is simply nothing like it; I am certain I have not seen a performance more dreadful than it. There had to have been someone on set who, after the first day of shooting, could have said, “No, this just won’t do. We have to find someone else.” But no: Coppola persists, lurching and grimacing and lazily slurring her way through the role, delivering a genuinely astonishing presentation of what appears to be a 19-year-old stroke victim. Mary Corleone comes off as an irritating weirdo, alternately banging her cousin and appearing constipated. If Part III is a trainwreck of a movie, Sofia Coppola is the tankard of transuranic waste that turns it into a tragedy. I don’t want to be hard on Coppola, who one assumes is a perfectly fine person. I do, however, want to be hard on the dozens and dozens of film staffers who should have had the good sense to yank her off Part III as quickly as possible.
Overall, parts II and III have a desperate sort of quality to them, a desire to recapture the sparkling sui generis magic of the original film. In one way this is probably sort of deliberate: characters in both II and III regularly speak of “the good old days” when mafia crime was a freewheeling enterprise and, as Don Barzini remarks, the dons could “do whatever we want.” In the latter two films, everyone seems increasingly used up and spent, dinosaurs who somehow avoided extinction but are nonetheless slowly dying. Part II leverages this depressing desperation to some successful extent; Part III is incapable of leveraging even ten minutes of enjoyable screen time. On the whole, the first Godfather is really the only movie deserving of all the praise it has received. If you want a laugh, however, Part III is surely the best mafia comedy film ever made.