The Godfather Part III (1990)

Dir. Francis Ford Coppola. Starring Al Pacino, Andy Garcia, Eli Wallach

They got Al Pacino, Diane Keaton, Talia Shire, and Gordon Willis back. They intercut scenes from both of this movie’s predecessors. It begins with a party, and many of the beats that we’ve come to expect from our Godfather movies are poking around: a trusted associate is not so trustworthy, someone tries to kill the Godfather, a tough mob boss is gunned down during a street festival, real life history is tied into the Corleone family’s business, a sequence at the end where we settle all the family accounts. The themes are much the same, even to the point of oleaginousness. To put it another way, I just watched all the MCU movies and I think Godfather Part III is working harder to create callbacks to the original material more than those comic book movies that make me a little tired. And yet I still think that this movie is done a disservice by viewing it the way we were supposed to view Endgame, as if this is a culmination at the end of a story. There’s something a little tangled and messy here, which is fitting for a Coppola movie. Godfather 3 is, because it is so much like the first two and because it goes out of its way to reference those earlier movies, a part of the larger story of the Corleone men.

I can’t help thinking that it’s because Godfather 3 mirrors that structure so tightly that it works as its own story. The series of proven beats emphasizes that this movie can work on its own, and sometimes it even does; on the aggregate, I prefer this movie’s approach to score-settling more than similar sequence in The Godfather Part II. There are some stunning shots here: the corpse of Keinszig (Helmut Berger) in shadow under the bridge with a deep blue behind it, the falling body of Gilday (Donal Donnelly) dropped from a flight of stairs, the light that is dim enough to shroud the Corleones watching Cavalleria rusticana while still bright enough to know who is who and how they glint in that shadowy setting. People compare frames of movies to paintings all too often, which is a sign they weren’t going to art museums before covid. It cheapens the language we can use about a movie like Godfather 3, which really does aspire to that dark canvas in the style of Rembrandt or Caravaggio, and which is exceptional in a movie rather than some cheap description. I was struck by the final couple shots of the movie as well, even though the scene is sort of a storytelling failure, an epilogue to an epilogue that is brief nearly to the point of comedy. In the first shot, we see Michael (Pacino) aged, the camera staring down at this small man in his small chair. And then a second one, the chair at the far left side of the screen, a little dog puttering around. Michael slumps in the chair, stays for a moment, and then falls down. The dog sniffs him a little and the movie ends. It’s too short to mean much, but the way it looks is spectacular. If there’s a fitting culmination for these movies, it’s less about what kind of exuberant flourishes we could tack onto the ending in order to ensure that there’s absolute closure from Altobello to Zasa and more about one beautiful, final shot to close the series.

Would that the screenplay were as beautiful as the cinematography. There is a single saving grace, I think, in this story, and I go from wondering if it’s an incredible purposeful choice that the movie knows it’s making to thinking they just needed Vincent (Garcia) to have a love interest he’d need to give up and decided it’d be easier to use a female character they already had in the story instead of writing another one in. Making Vincent and Mary (Sofia Coppola) cousins in love is so gross, an immediate yuck factor no matter what you think about gnocchi, and yet from a biological perspective there’s nothing particularly dangerous about it. There’s very little that the Corleone family is doing that is illegitimate, but it smells wrong over and over again, and that’s mirrored in that open-mouthed kiss over potato pasta.

As much as the story borrows from the previous installments, it suffers from middling dialogue throughout. Even if this were the first of the Godfather movies one had seen, there’d still be an annoying autopilot quality in the dialogue that buzzes throughout the movie. In the beginning of the film, there’s a conversation between Kay (Keaton) and Michael that feels like the bad fanfic version of this story:

Kay: I came here to protect my son. I didn’t come here to see you disguised by your church. I thought that was a shameful ceremony.

Michael: I spent my life protecting my son. I spent my life protecting my family!

Kay: Let’s be reasonable here, Michael. I mean, that’s your big thing, isn’t it? Reason backed up by murder.

Michael Corleone: Oh, God, you hate me. You hate me.

Kay Adams-Corleone: No, I don’t hate you, Michael. I dread you.

Michael Corleone: I did what I could to protect you from the horrors of the world.

Kay Adams-Corleone: But you became my horror.

This is not a conversation that belongs in a good movie. The vagueness of “I spent my life protecting my family!” is not aided by Pacino screeching it, and then there’s even more vagueness with “the horrors of the world,” which is the sort of thing someone should say while they’re making a Frankenstein’s monster. The “reason backed up by murder” line makes no sense. In two consecutive lines, Kay does “It’s not x, it’s y,” which I’m sure is making Aaron Sorkin weak at the knees, but for the rest of us that’s unnecessarily cute. The dialogue does not do favoris for either of Keaton or Pacino, but it also isn’t aided by the delivery, which is different from line to line. For all I know this is an editing problem in which there are dozens of versions of this scene and they went with 2, 8, 29, and 53. It’s not good that there are so many potential reasons why this important scene, and several equally important scenes to come, are insufficient to the movie’s purpose! Most of all, though, the error is in the dialogue. It gets less clunky than this, but the damage has been done already. Every time you think you’re out of the woods someone says some new dumb thing. The dialogue from the Godfather movies, as it tends to be in films by Coppola’s auteur protégé George Lucas, has always been a smidge clunky. They were always more reliant on a good actor to rescue the words than beautifully written. “Women and children can be careless, but men can’t” ? The syllables sound great together, but it’s the kind of thing that a moron would say. Only a terrific delivery from Marlon Brando can save it, and there is no Brando or John Cazale or Robert Duvall here to hold a net for the dialogue to leap from this burning building.

Acting is the secondary trouble with the movie, even more than a plot that’s on fumes from the word go. The transition from “Al Pacino, serious actor” to “Al Pacino, serious actor with a penchant for SHOUTING” has begun, although there are moments like the death scene or his negotiations with Immobiliare where we can see the man’s talent. This is not Diane Keaton’s finest hour; nor is it really Eli Wallach’s, whose Altobello is oversold as a kindly old man. You could be forgiven, I think, for not recognizing him as the big bad in the first reel, even though casting Wallach as that guy has strong “The bad guy in this episode of Law and Order has an Oscar nomination” energy. The sweet geezer never really does project menace in any kind of way; to judge a book by its earlier chapters, Wallach is just not the equal of what Abe Vigoda and Lee Strasberg do in that same role. Talia Shire is chewing some expensive scenery as Connie, who seems strangely involved in the family business after all these years, and Shire’s performance is subjugated to that curious decision to make her something of a valued member of the team.

I know you were waiting for this, and yeah, Sofia Coppola isn’t particularly good in this movie, but two things stand out to me about this discourse. One, she’s not even doing the worst acting of someone playing one of Michael’s children. Franc D’Ambrosio is giving a high school performance in a movie that cost $100 million to make in our money; Sofia Coppola at least has presence, is convincing as a teenage girl who grew up rich and has no clue where Daddy’s money came from. Two, for as much guff as she gets…she’s not even in it that much? This movie is nearly three hours. Is Sofia in this as much as Diane or Talia? Is she in this as much as Eli or Joe Mantegna? Joe Mantegna as Joey Zasa is beyond terrible. It’s a turrible, turrible performance, mannered and prim to the gills but at the same time flat as a board. It’s like the guy was taking notes from a Masterpiece Theatre performance, slept through the second half, and put down “how would Tim Pigott-Smith tone down street enforcer Joey Zasa to give a classy performance?”

It’s Internet chic to put the lion’s share of the blame on Sofia Coppola, but this falls into the trap of who we most often blame for “ruining movies with bad performances.” Maybe someday this turns into its own post, but the short version is that we tend to unfairly denigrate performances that “ruin the movie” by choosing performances where we don’t like the line deliveries, where the cameo is distracting, or, most frequently, where the woman is deemed insufficient. Google a few lists based on this premise and you get most of the same returns: Coppola in this movie, Keanu Reeves in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (who I’m sorry to say genuinely deserves on these lists), Hayden Christiansen in the Star Wars prequels (not as bad as Reeves, but…), Quentin Tarantino in Django Unchained (one of those hilarious instances where he can literally only blame himself), Cameron Diaz in Gangs of New York, Katie Holmes in Batman Begins. It’s worth noting that so many of these performances are women who are insufficiently cool or atmospheric enough in macho cool movies, I think! And of course Coppola’s performance in this movie is a classic example of not dying gracefully enough, or of not having actorly intonations, or of not being Winona Ryder, who did not take this part. (I don’t know how to tell you this if you think Ryder would have been better, but if you think that performance would have resembled the punky, whiny performance from Heathers instead of being a carbon copy of the dewy, whiny performance from Edward Scissorhands, then I’ve got a signed Blu-ray of Reality Bites with your name on it.) I think it’s fair to complain about that scene where she asks Pacino in a voice that’s too flat and a tone that’s too meek about how crooked he really is. I think doing so fails to reward her presence in the film, though, fails to see the realism in the way she interacts with small children, the sort of awkward but close dance she shares with Pacino, the reliable way that she looks like a teenager with a crush when she’s around Garcia.

Andy Garcia is giving the movie’s best performance, even though those scenes where he flies off the HANDLE with the same cadence that Pacino uses for it verge on parody. He has the hardest job—he has to convince us he’s Al Pacino from the 1970s again, which, good Lord is that a task—and he actually makes us believe it. The story is doing Garcia some favors, given that it’s giving him the juiciest part, and the one that’s probably the most considered on the front end. There’s that same toughness and bloody mind in Garcia’s performance that we saw once Michael got his jaw broken in The Godfather; that scene where he looks half-sorry for sending Bridget Fonda into the arms of two assailants as bait is a triumph. He goes on to make the same kind of choice that his uncle did in choosing to sell his soul rather than choose love, and while it’s punctuated with dialogue which tells us what we already know rather than an all-timer of an image, Garcia has a gusto in his face at Cavalleria rusticana, a certainty that comes from knowing that he’s the crown prince of the world’s most thrilling empire despite being born a bastard technically unable to inherit this throne. It means a little less, amusingly, without Sofia Coppola’s performance opposite his.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s