Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (September 22, 2008)
In my review of The Phantom Menace, I stated that I feel it was the most highly anticipated film of all-time. Commercially, I don’t think this can be argued; no movie has been so eagerly awaited by so many. However, if I had to pick a flick that labored under the toughest critical standards, it probably would be 1990’s The Godfather Part III.
Look at the situation. The first film in the series - 1972’s The Godfather - was an enormous box office hit and it grabbed the Best Picture award for that year. Although it didn’t take many additional Oscars – of its remaining 10 nominations, Godfather grabbed only Best Actor for Marlon Brando and Best Writing - Godfather has maintained an extraordinarily strong reputation. It now stands second on the most recent AFI Top 100 Movies list.
1974’s Godfather Part II “only” snagged the 32nd spot on that chart, but it actually did better at the Oscars. The perennial favorite among discussions of the very best sequels, Part II earned six awards for its 11 nominations, including another Best Picture plus Best Director for Francis Ford Coppola, a prize that eluded him the first time. That year Bob Fosse won for Cabaret.
Imagine that you’re the third son in a family. Your oldest brother was George Washington and the middle brother was Abe Lincoln. Based on that lineage, you’d be subjected to insanely high expectations. Such was the atmosphere that greeted the late 1990 release of The Godfather Part III; whatever merits the movie might boast on its own, it’d have to live up to the examples set by its predecessors.
Personally, I think Part III would have been more successful without the Godfather connection. That link set the standard so high that it would be almost impossible to match up to it. Taken on its own, Part III isn’t a terrible film, but when compared to its siblings, its flaws seem much more prominent.
Part III starts in 1979, 20 years after the conclusion of Part II. When that film ended, Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) was a virtual shell of a man. After years of scheming and killing, all allegedly to further the interests of his family, he found himself almost totally alone and haunted by his actions. By the beginning of Part III, however, he seems to have loosened up quite a bit. Apparently he’s taken the family nearly fully legitimate in the ensuing 20 years, and as the story commences, Michael receives a high honor from the Catholic Church due to all his charity works.
This reunites Michael with his semi-estranged children Anthony (Franc D’Ambrosio) and Mary (Sofia Coppola) as well as his ex-wife Kay (Diane Keaton). We also meet new characters like small-time gang boss Joey Zasa (Joe Mantegna) and Vincent Mancini (Andy Garcia), the illegitimate son of Michael’s dead brother Sonny. Vincent wants a role in the family’s business – its real business, not this namby-pamby “legit” stuff – and develops a loathing for Zasa that motivates his behavior.
Essentially Part III follows Michael as he tries to redeem himself through non-criminal business dealings. He attempts to become a partner with the Vatican in a financial interest but soon discovers that the church is more corrupt than the Mafia. When Zasa and others try to off Michael, he gets drawn back into his old violent ways, and Vincent takes an active role in the proceedings as the apparent don in training. He also falls in love with Mary, something that displeases Michael since they’re cousins.
I won’t go further with the story because I’d rather avoid any possible spoilers. Suffice it to say that this sucker doesn’t have a happy ending, but that shouldn’t come as a surprise; none of the three movies conclude on a joyous note. It would have seemed artificial and forced to alter that tone for Part III.
While I’m happy that director Francis Ford Coppola kept that aspect of the saga intact, he made enough other alterations to make Part III feel very different from the first two films. The biggest change comes with Michael himself. Same actor, same director, same writers, but this isn’t the same Michael, and I don’t mean that in a good way. I thought the character seemed almost unrecognizable.
For one, I found it hard to buy that he invested himself so strongly in his attempts to go straight. During much of the first two movies, he paid lip service to that concept, but he only became more heavily embroiled in the crime. By the end of Part II, he’d lost everything near and dear; the possibility that Michael would eventually snap out of it appears illogical and inconsistent with the character. 1959’s Michael was a tortured, doomed soul; there was no going back for him.
Bizarrely, the Part III Michael depicts choices that never would’ve fit the Part II Michael. For instance, at the very start of Part III, we learn that Michael long ago let Kay take care of their kids for their perceived benefit. Huh? I can’t imagine that the Michael of Part II who completely shut Kay out of his – and his kids’ – lives would then rethink things and be so generous and forgiving. The same Michael who had his own brother killed due to transgressions somehow comes to be so beneficent to Kay, the woman he clearly would hate forever after she aborted his child? No way – absolutely no way. Did Coppola and the others just totally forget all aspects of Michael’s character? Probably not, but they wanted Michael to be distant from his kids for Part III’s story, so this illogical character twist occurred.
Pacino plays 1979 Michael in a much more broad and gregarious manner as well. Oh, he seems tired at times, but he comes across as way too peppy and extroverted through much of Part III. For example, a scene in which he takes Kay on a tour of the family hometown in Sicily feels all wrong. I can’t envision even the young and idealistic Michael of the first film behaving in this way, much less the worn-out old man. By 1990, Pacino had become a much louder and showy actor than he’d been in the Seventies, and that made all the difference here. It hurt the film, for I never felt like this guy was even vaguely related to the Michael I watched earlier.
In the “good acting” category, Garcia stood pretty much alone. He brought much-needed spark and fire to Vincent, and he largely kept him from seeming like a stereotype or cliché. No, he wasn’t as full-blooded and real as the characters seen in the first two movies, but beggars can’t be choosers, and when compared to the rest of the performances in Part III, Garcia’s Oscar nomination makes even more sense.
Mantegna overacted relentlessly as Zasa, but he’s not the worst offender. I most disliked the cheesy, ham-fisted performance offered by Eli Wallach as family friend Don Altobello. Wallach really went over the top in the role and his presence made me cringe consistently.
Note that I’ve failed to mention the worst performance in Part III, Sofia Coppola’s legendarily bad turn as Mary. Yes, she really does as poorly as you’ve heard. I thought she was cute, but she couldn’t act her way out of the proverbial brown paper bag.
Sofia was the Linda McCartney of Part III. Linda was a talented photography, but she demonstrated limited musical skills. Nonetheless, her husband Paul wanted her around, so he put her in Wings with him. She did her best, but that was never too hot.
The same went for Sofia in Part III. I’m sure Sofia tried her best, but she was stuck in a bad situation and lacked the skills to overcome the circumstances. She’s shown herself to be a talented filmmaker over the last decade or so, but that doesn’t somehow forgive her abysmal performance here. Her inability to convincingly portray any form of life, depth or emotion left a large hole in the film.
Even with better performances, Part III would remain an unworthy successor to Godfather and Part II, largely because of the character inconsistencies seen in Michael. A continuation of his story as seen in Part II was unnecessary; we knew this was a miserable man who would continue to pay for his sins. Part III’s alteration of that path seems illogical and almost insulting, and the manner in which it reminds us that we can’t escape our pasts feels patronizing.
I also disliked the film’s attempted irony. I suppose it’s meant to be shocking that Michael encounters so much corruption as he walks through the Catholic ranks, but this “revelation” simply felt forced and artificial. Ultimately it comes across as a cheap attempt at depth that goes nowhere.
It didn’t help that the film seemed to be sloppily researched. Part III takes place in 1979, but it involves the deaths of Pope Paul VI and John Paul I. Both died in 1978. I didn’t need to research that fact; I remembered it, even though I was just a kid at the time. No one associated with Part III was aware that they used the wrong date?
Perhaps the year was changed to distance the film from reality. After all, some nasty things are implied about Paul VI, and maybe it was felt that the alteration of date took the movie more into the realm of fiction. However, that makes no sense; if Coppola wanted to do this, he shouldn’t have used the names of real popes. Make up some names and we won’t view the story as being reality based at all.
Hmm… As I started this review, I stated that I didn’t think The Godfather Part III was a terrible film. That’s true, I suppose, as even with all its flaws, it still maintained a fairly interesting experience. Nonetheless, it’s not one about which I can conjure too many positive things to say. Sometimes when I write a review, I realize that I liked the movie in question more than I initially thought. Such was the case with Citizen Kane. When I screened it, I wasn’t that hot on it, but when forced to coalesce my thoughts for the article, I recognized how many strengths it offered.
The opposite was true for The Godfather Part III. The more I pondered it, the more problems I remembered and the less I cared for it. I could keep going and provide more defects in the film, but I’ll leave it alone. Suffice it to say that the Godfather saga should have stopped with Part II.