"Bonanno: A Godfather's Story" investigates a side of organized crime not usually portrayed in films: the insanely boring side. Showtime's dragging, sagging saga, a lame "Godfather" rip-off, is operatic, but only in length, airing in two parts that total nearly five hours.
Perhaps it merits credit for a novel attitude: "Bonanno" says being a professional gangster is merely choosing an alternative lifestyle. Joseph Bonanno is portrayed as a cuddly sweetums who rescues a little girl's white pussycat when it's trapped on a fire escape, and he gives an immigrant old lady a job in the garment industry out of pure charity. "Come on, Joe, you're too softhearted," a colleague scolds him at another point. Too softhearted to be believed, actually, and surely the dullest crime lord in motion picture history, although the film barely qualifies for a place in it.
"Bonanno's" two parts air tomorrow and Monday at 8 on Showtime, ever the also-ran among pay-cable networks. Whereas the "Godfather" films had two solid Italian American names prominent in the credits, Francis Ford Coppola and novelist-screenwriter Mario Puzo, "Bonanno" was written by Thomas Michael Donnelly and directed by Michel Poulette. Maybe an Irishman and a Frenchman could make a good movie about the Mafia, but these two haven't.
The film would be unwelcome at any time, but it happens to be especially unseemly right now, since it goes out of its way to trash the Kennedy clan. Bonanno makes his first big money in bootlegging in the Prohibitionary '20s, and it's pointed out that patriarch Joseph Kennedy did the same, as if the two were of the same stripe.
Then, in Part 2, we see Papa Joe lecturing his sons Jack and Bobby, then president and attorney general of the United States, to lay off their investigations of organized crime because the organized criminals did so much to get Jack elected. The brothers are not receptive. "This stinks," growls Bobby, offering what could be taken as a succinct critique of the miniseries.
JFK assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, according to the film, was a "patsy," and the actual fatal shots were fired by a mob gunman from a Dallas sewer. Oh Lord, haven't we suffered enough? This sequence of the film would make even Oliver Stone roll his eyes and moan.
It's probably not worth being outraged, since the whole movie is so laughably amateurish. A mob encounter with Joe Kennedy on a golf course, for instance, ends with a klutzy visual howler. Their conversation concluded, Kennedy says, "Have a good trip back to New York, Mr. D'Angelo." The hood says, "Thank you" and then rumbles off in a golf cart--leaving the impression that he's going to drive it all the way to Manhattan.
As the film opens, we are in sunny Sicily and elderly Joe, 94--played by a humiliated-looking Martin Landau--begins narrating his nearly interminable autobiography. "I believe the world we're born into is what we become," he philosophizes hazily. He also cautions, "Memories are shaped by the heart and clouded by time, but I will do my best to tell you my story."
One reason Bonanno comes out looking so dear is that his son Bill wrote one of the two books on which the miniseries is based and is one of its executive producers. The other book was written by Big Joey himself.
For a mob saga, "Bonanno" contains relatively little graphic gore, but Showtime top-loads the first half-hour with violence as a cheap ploy to grab viewers' attention. We see shootings and stranglings and various violent rubbings-out. Even a puppet is decapitated! All this happens because Joe's father, Salvatore (played by Costas Mandylor), is involved in a vendetta with another Sicilian family. He makes peace by asking his archenemy to be godfather to his son, Joseph. That's godfather in the traditional family sense, not in the mobster sense.
When Joseph is 11, his father returns from World War I looking "gray and frail like a ghost," though he seems hardly to have changed at all. After his death, Joseph travels to Palermo to attend the naval academy there and become a sea captain. But soon Mussolini's fascist troops are trampling all over the countryside, and Bonanno wants none of that kind of foolishness.
Thus we are further primed to root for him: He is anti-fascist and opposes Il Duce, so much so that he travels to America as a way of escaping. At this point emerges a major theme of the film: America runs on money. "I have learned one thing in America: Money talks," Bonanno says. Later, the voice of Landau as old Joe says in narration, "It was clear to me: America worshiped money, and money led to power." And, for good measure, Bonanno's mentor, played by Edward James Olmos, tells him, "America's a good place to make money."
With so much palaver about money, it's a pity Showtime didn't cough up a little more for the production. One of Showtime's slogans is "No Limits," but that apparently doesn't apply to budgets. "Bonanno" looks shockingly shoddy and cheap for a pay-TV attraction. Relatively big names like Patti LuPone and Robert Loggia show up, but only for teeny "special appearances."
If the term "uninspired" didn't exist, it would have to be invented to describe director Poulette and his laggardly, stilted approach. Of course it doesn't help that seemingly dozens of writer Donnelly's scenes are meetings at which the mob executives dicker and prattle and jabber until you may want to scream. Sometimes they hold meetings just to arrange other meetings.
And what conclusions are we to draw about organized crime from the film? According to the narration, these are the things that make it tick: "The belief in friendship, connections, family ties, trust, loyalty, obedience." This isn't just public relations propaganda for the mob, it's a virtual recruitment film.
"Bonanno" is the kind of movie that, if watched at all, should be viewed while you do other things--read magazines, bake cookies, putter around the house, write your own movie. It only requires one eye, one ear and about a tenth of the brain. Even that might be lavishing it with too much attention.