Roger Ebert famously criticized The Godfather Part III for being completely based on continuity, going so far as to say that the movie cannot be understood without having seen the previous two movies. It's an odd criticism given that the movie is called The Godfather Part III. The Godfather Part II might indeed be more “stand alone” than the last movie in the series – but it's a series. The Godfather Part I, II, and III. That's all it promises. Maybe what Ebert was getting at is that The Godfather Part III doesn't intensify, augment, deepen, or even teach us anything new about the characters and situations in the first two movies. The last film of the Godfather series is, as Coppola has said himself, a kind of epilogue, and that's exactly what it feels like.
Think back to that last image of the older Michael Corleone in The Godfather Part II. A man who has killed or alienated everyone he ever loved, thinking back to the moment when he first separated himself from his family. Did you get any sense that he would reconcile with his wife, raise healthy and well-adjusted children, or ever be completely free of his family's mafia background? No. Not at all. We see the ghost of a great man, looking back on his life, alone forever in the bleak winter of his own life, and everything you feel in that moment is made smaller when watching The Godfather Part III.
It's not just Sophia Coppola's poor acting, although that doesn't help. (Up until just before shooting, Winona Ryder was going to play Mary Corleone. Would that have been better?) It's not just the plot, which has an ad hoc feel – likely the case, since Coppola had only six weeks to write it. It's not just the emotional void caused by the absence of Robert Duvall's Tom Hagen. It's not the arbitrary trip to Italy meant to mimic the structure of the previous films, or Andy Garcia's predictable ham-handedness, or Dianne Keaton's seeming boredom at the whole thing, and oddly I don't even think it's the fact that Coppola did it for money. I mean, he did it for money, for sure. He'd had a long standing offer to make a third Godfather movie, but he didn't take the offer simply because the story was over. But that's not it.
Conceiving the story as an epilog, Coppola forced himself into the last film of what I've come to think of as his nostalgia phase. The whole movie looks back. The Godfather Part II looks back in an energetic and active way while simultaneously showing us the kind of future Michael is building. It actively stretches in both directions. The Godfather Part III is a movie that could have happened in Michael's mind at the end of The Godfather Part II.
Naturally a lot of this feel from Coppola's movies at the time is tied to his bankruptcy and debt. Debt ties us to the past, and forces us into against our will into a life of looking back, a life of nostalgia, a life lived in epilog. The Godfather Part III is that final nostalgic blast from Coppola, the last time he'll look back at his past successes and failures in order to set himself free. The movie is tremendously sad for me, and I tend to imagine that it's rather sad for Coppola as well.
Next week: Coppola makes a fresh start.
Playing second fiddle to a more famous sibling can be rough. Just ask Fred Claus (Vaughn) a regular guy who has had to grow up under the shadow of his little brother Nicholas Claus (Paul Giamatti) aka Santa. That’s a big shadow to say the least both figuratively and literally. As an adult Fred has pretty much steered clear of his family but when he finds himself in dire need of some fast cash he calls his brother. Pleased as punch to hear from him Nicholas nonetheless makes him a deal: If he comes up to the North Pole for a visit and to help out the few days before Christmas then Fred can have the money. Fred reluctantly agrees and soon he’s being whisked off in Santa’s sleigh by head elf Willie (John Michael Higgins). But once Fred gets to the North Pole nothing seems to go right and soon he is the cause of much chaos--which unbeknownst to Fred causes Nicholas even more stress since his North Pole operation is one step away from being shut down by a cold-hearted efficiency expert (Kevin Spacey). Can Fred quit being bitter in time to save his brother’s livelihood? Of course he can. Hmmm Vince Vaughn minus the R-rated Wedding Crashers/Old School irreverence? It’s a stretch. Seeing the comic actor playing it PG is a little weird but you might enjoy how Vaughn infuses his unique energy into Fred Claus. From getting all the elves to boogie down in Santa’s workshop to going on one rant after another (on his brother: “He’s a clown a megalomaniac a fame junkie!”) to pilfering money on the street and then being chased by Salvation Army Santas it’s all good. Giamatti too seems a little out of his comfort zone as the saintly St. Nick. The actor who usually plays such endearing sad sacks has already played against type to great effect this year as the maniacal bad guy in Shoot ‘Em Up but he isn't nearly as successful in doing the flipside of that in Fred Claus. And what the hell is Kevin Spacey doing in this? As the villain of the film he fills the shoes nicely but he is almost too good at it (natch) for such a feel-good family film. Even Higgins--a character actor who is usually so hilarious in films such as The Break Up and all of Christopher Guest’s movies—has to shed the cheekiness and sugar himself up for Fred Claus. There’s also Rachel Weisz as Fred’s beleaguered girlfriend (you heard right) and Kathy Bates as the Claus boys’ mother who always sees Fred as inferior to her other son to fill out a cast of big names doing family fare. Director David Dobkin is a Vince Vaughn favorite having directed him in Wedding Crashers and Clay Pigeons but like his muse Dobkin seems a little out of place guiding this material. Granted Dobkin creates a pretty magical North Pole complete with an entire city of little dwellings a Frosty Tavern and a huge domed Santa’s Workshop. The montage of Fred delivering presents on Christmas Eve—falling down chimneys stuffing cookies in his face zooming around in the sleigh—is also well done. But overall Fred Claus is a Vaughn vehicle—even as sugary sweet and family-friendly as it is--and all Dobkin really does is turn the camera on and let the man do his stuff. Dan Fogelman's script is also so very bland full of any number of holes and only picks up once Vaughn starts to improvise. Bottom line: If you’re looking to take the kids to a sweet Christmas movie and are a Vince Vaughn fan then Fred Claus is for you.