Francis Ford Coppola's "The Godfather Part III" isn't just a disappointment, it's a failure of heartbreaking proportions. Admittedly, "The Godfather" I and II, which are universally acclaimed as among the greatest works of the American cinema, are a tough act to follow; a very good film might be put alongside them and still not measure up. "Godfather III," though, adds little more than a sad footnote to those earlier works.
The film completes the story of Vito Corleone and his sons, bringing us from the point at which the second film ended to the present day, from that image of an isolated Michael (Al Pacino) looking out from his boathouse office as the orders for his brother's murder are executed, to the anticlimactic ending. But in supplying the final chapter of the saga, it also sullies what came before. It makes you wish it had never been made.
Coppola's star has dimmed significantly over the 16 years since the last "Godfather" film, but to see this third installment is to watch it fall out of the sky altogether. "The Godfather Part III" is the work of an artist estranged from his talent, a lost soul. In continuing the story of the Corleones, not only does Coppola fail to build on what he and his screenwriter Mario Puzo previously created; he also seems oblivious to what had made his story so compelling to begin with.
The characters that carry over from the earlier films bear little resemblance to themselves. The dread curve of Michael Corleone's life, which provided a dramatic spine for the family saga, has lost its sinister bend. At the beginning of "Part III," Michael has come very close to realizing his dream of a completely legitimate family business. At a ceremony in his New York penthouse, he receives the Order of St. Sebastian from the Catholic Church, a lofty honor that may be connected to the $100 million donation given to the church by the Vito Corleone Foundation, a charity run by Michael's daughter Mary (Sofia Coppola). But this first act doesn't have the dramatic resonance of the wedding scene in "Part I," or the celebration of Michael's son Anthony's first communion in "Part II," because Michael no longer sits like a malignant spider at the center of his Mafia web. Michael is a businessman now, and in divesting himself of his criminal interests he has lost what made him interesting, his murderous darkness.
It's nearly impossible to see how the relentlessly brutal middle-aged man at the end of "Part II" could have grown into the relaxed, polished, easy-moving older one we see here. In some scenes -- like one in which he urges Vincent (Andy Garcia), his brother Sonny's hotheaded bastard son, to make the peace with a rival, Joey Zaza (Joe Mantegna) -- he seems almost charming -- a smiling, glad-handing lightweight. The action here takes place past the point where there is anything at stake, and it has, at times, an almost meditative quality, an old man's summing up.
With Michael missing from the film's center, the rest of the action seems ungrounded; it loses its moral dimension and becomes just another mob story. The two main plot threads concern the Corleone family's dealing with the Vatican, and Vincent's emergence as Michael's successor. The motives for Garcia's Vincent aren't split, the way Michael's have been. Violence is natural to him. He suffers no pangs of conscience when he takes revenge on his family's behalf, and in this he is supposed to be strong in the uncomplicated way Don Vito Corleone was. Garcia, as a result, seems to be the only actor in the film who knows what he's playing, the only one with a clear mission, and he gives a thrilling, feral performance. It's the film's strongest.
Pacino, for his part, flails around inside his character. His makeup is superb, though if he had been allowed to sweep back his hair it might have connected him physically to Garcia (and to Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro, as well). Sometimes his choices are intriguing, and at times he draws something interesting to the surface of his performance. For the most part, though, he busies himself by paying attention to the details of playing an older man -- Michael is around 60 -- and goes not much deeper than that.
Some of Coppola's choices -- for example, having Michael collapse suddenly into a diabetic coma when it was never mentioned that he suffers from the disease -- appear to have been made out of desperation. And some of the plotting -- particularly the handling of a conflict between the Corleones and the Luchese family over control of the Vatican's massive corporate holdings -- is tangled beyond comprehension. Some scenes -- such as the ones with Diane Keaton as Michael's wife, Kay -- are in the film because of studio politics, and not because Puzo and Coppola have anything of importance to say in them.
Even though she is authoritative in the role, Keaton suffers tremendously from having no real function except to nag Michael for his past sins. (She's also anchored with some of the film's most painful dialogue.) Eli Wallach has a few hammy moments as Don Altabello, an old mob friend who turns out to be an enemy. Bridget Fonda, who plays a journalist, has only two small scenes that contribute nothing whatsoever, and George Hamilton contributes a few atrocious moments as the family's PR man. Talia Shire's part as Michael's sister, Connie, has been expanded in "Part III," but the conception for the character seems to vary from scene to scene, so that at one moment she's a screaming crackpot and the next a power-hungry behind-the-scenes plotter.
The romance between Mary and Vincent is one of the film's main subplots, and as Mary, Sofia Coppola is hopelessly amateurish. Still, the part is a relatively small one, and her failure -- contrary to much that has already been written -- contributes very little to what is actually wrong with the film.
It may be that Coppola was right to put off filing this last installment all these years; from the evidence here, he had nothing more to say. As an epic metaphor for the American dream, the first two "Godfather" films are nearly perfect. The connections they made go deep into the story of this country, deep into our sense of ourselves and the contradictions in our lives. As a generational story, they had the richness and scope of Shakespeare. But the man who made those two masterpieces is not the man who has given us this failed final chapter. Though he reassembled many of the members of his old team -- his actors, Puzo, cinematographer Gordon Willis and production designer Dean Tavoularis -- his talent for filmmaking is eclipsed now by his gift for self-destruction. If that great earlier artist ever had a chance of resurfacing, it was here. But he didn't and you can't help but see "The Godfather Part III" as his headstone.
The Godfather Part III, at area theaters, is rated R for violence.