In all fairness, The Godfather Part III wasn’t really the fault of Francis Ford Coppola. His 1982 musical drama One from the Heart, despite coming only three years after the incredibly successful Apocalypse Now, bombed so badly that he was soon facing serious financial issues, leaving him with only two options: direct, produce, and co-write (with, as always, Mario Puzo, author of the novels from which the Godfather films came) another Godfather film like Paramount really wanted him to do, or live the rest of his life nearly penniless. Obviously, he chose the former option, and took in about $83 million in the box office as a result. Good for him, but since the resulting product is a dull, thoroughly muddled mess that has no other reason to exist, not so good for all the rest of us.
The first immediate red flag is Part III‘s release date. The Godfather Part II was released in 1974 (only two years after the first Godfather film), and, besides being a great film in its own right, brought the Corleone saga to a dark, nihilistic, yet profoundly unforgettable close. Even Coppola himself knew that, explicitly intending Part III to be an “epilogue” to the epic masterworks that came before it—and a very belated one at that, given that the film finally hit theaters in 1990, more than 15 years after Part II. If he had bothered to keep this installment’s story and characters consistent (not even in terms of being “consistently great”, just plain consistent) with what those previous films had already laid out, this might’ve actually worked. Unfortunately, he didn’t—not by a long shot.
Michael Corleone (Al Pacino), the current “don” of the Corleone family circa 1979, has unconvincingly changed from a subtle, yet chilling face of evil to a tired, overdramatic old man suddenly desperate on getting his family out of the mafia business*. His now-ex-wife, Kay (Diane Keaton), is still estranged from him as the movie opens, but when they both meet again, neither really show any trace of the painful trauma they both went through. At one point, they even stroll around Italy together, bunk down in a cozy motel for the night, and start reminiscing about the “good old days” of their married years. Uh huh. (Imagine a There Will Be Blood 2—or, for humor’s sake, There Will Be Blood Part II—being made like this, with Daniel Plainview and H.W. respectively assuming Michael’s and Kay’s roles.)
And of course, there’s the teenage Mary Corleone. After a variety of actresses were shifted through in fairly quick succession (Julia Roberts: scheduling conflicts. Madonna: too old. Rebecca Schaeffer: murdered. Winona Ryder: dropped out last-minute due to nervous exhaustion), the director’s daughter, Sofia Coppola, was finally handed the role. There was only one problem with that, however: she can’t—or, at the very least, couldn’t—act. At all.
In fact, her stiff, blank-faced performance resembles something off Lifetime—nay, the Disney channel—far more than something you’d expect from something like a Godfather film, and only serves to make several “serious” moments (a climactic shooting predominantly among them) unintentionally hilarious. It’s not that she’s untalented—in fact, some of the films she’s subsequently written and directed over the years (The Virgin Suicides, Lost In Translation, and The Beguiled among them) have received very high praise. It’s just that she really didn’t have enough acting experience at the time to fit in with pros like Pacino and Keaton, and Francis Ford should have known that.
Then again, even if Sofia’s performance was better, it wouldn’t have really changed how shallow, one-note, and utterly forgettable Mary’s character is anyway. Also, she inexplicably begins a sexual relationship with her first cousin, Vincent (Andy Garcia), who are shown heavily making out in each others’ arms. Yes, folks, one of the greatest series of all time now features incest, and not even in a way that’s interesting or believable for any of the characters involved. It’s literally just there for cheap shock value, and nothing else. Bleck.
Where was I again? Oh yeah: Michael wants to do business for the Catholic church in an attempt to repent for his sins, but Vincent’s slightly fiery temper, as well as some trouble with rival mobsters, may get in the way of that. Such a basic description may make the film sound pretty simple, but for some reason, this story is told in the most aimless, convoluted, and purely uninvolving way possible. Yes, the first two Godfather films were also pretty convoluted at times, but there was a clear and direct purpose to this, and the rich characters, storylines, and symbolism** were enough to still keep me invested most of the way through.
This one, on the other hand, just sits around and spins its wheels for nearly three hours, resulting in a very flat and unmemorable viewing experience—albeit one that’s really easy to make fun of at some points. Even if you ignore Sofia’s acting, there’s also a man randomly yelling about his “lucky coat” in the middle of a Die Hard-esque shootout, an “opera assassination” scene (clearly meant to mirror the first film’s immortal “baptism killings” sequence) that starts out decently but quickly gets long-winded and confusing, a lame attempt at creating another “I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse”-tier line (“Just when I thought I was out, they pulled me back in.”—yes, that’s the actual line), and a closing scene so abrupt, awkward, and hastily slapped-together—Pacino’s “elderly man” makeup is a laugh riot—that the apparent “message” of it (which I won’t spoil here) is completely lost.
Admittedly, not everything about Part III is terrible. The cinematography, though pretty bland compared to the first two films, has its mildly striking moments, and some of the performances (particularly Pacino’s and Garcia’s) are fairly good at points. Compared to what came before it, however, the entire thing is a complete and utter disaster, though probably better than what would have came after it hadn’t Puzo passed on in ‘99.
Yes, there was going to be a Godfather Part IV, and it would’ve had De Niro returning to play Vito Corleone in the 1930s, Garcia reprising his role as Vincent, and Leonardo DeCaprio playing another young Corleone. Yes, it probably would’ve been very, very bad, though a certain part of me is morbidly curious as to what the finished product would’ve actually been like. Then that other, larger part of me, the one that wants to prevent Parts I and II from being any more tarnished than they already are, kicks in and quickly renders those vague “what-ifs” stupid, pointless, and really, really unpleasant to think about. As they undoubtedly are.
*Even Pacino himself knew that something wasn’t right there: according to IMDB [NOTE: SPOILERS FOR PART II IN LINK], he apparently stated that he didn’t believe that Michael would ever feel regret or remorse for this actions (particularly what he did to Fredo)—though that didn’t stop Coppola from writing his character that way anyway. Oh well.
**Speaking of “symbolism”, we get the classic “oranges=death” motif again… only this time, it’s so ridiculously unsubtle (the camera focuses on one such fruit rolling off a table right before the “lucky coat” massacre starts happening) that it fails to be effective in any way. How the mighty have fallen.