Cinema Dispatch: Capone

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Capone and all the images you see in this review are owned by Vertical Entertainment

Directed by Josh Trank

Well that’s a name I didn’t expect to see!  It’s been a while since Josh Trank’s last film Fant-Four-Stick which was by all accounts a misguided mess, but I never thought he was a BAD director; just someone who’s reach exceeded his grasp much like Colin “Book of Henry” Trevorrow who was dropped from Star Wars but at least is getting another swing at Jurassic Park at some point.  Honestly, I hadn’t even heard about this movie until the reviews started pouring in on my YouTube feed, and since there’s not a whole lot else going on right now, why not give it a shot?  Is this a solid film and a notable return for the director of Chronicle, or has Trank somehow declined even further after Fantastic Four was such a nightmare to work on?  Let’s find out!!

Notorious mobster Alfonse Capone (Tom Hardy) was released from jail seven years after he was sentenced for Tax Evasion due to his failing health.  He then spent several years under the care of his wife (Linda Cardellini) and some of his old friends in Florida whiling away the days while his condition got worse and his mind began to deteriorate.  With not much time left, some of the people in his life start to wonder if there’s one last bit of cash stashed away somewhere, most notably the FBI who have been keeping him under surveillance since his release, but ultimately this is a story of a man slowly dying and reflecting on his life; trying to find some peace in his final years and lamenting the continued loss of his faculties as the paresis ravages his mind.  Will we learn what makes this legendary gangster tick as we watch him struggle through the final years of his life?  Will the people around him get what they’re looking for, and how far are they willing to go to get it?  Will Tom Hardy get that Oscar gold with this mumbling performance of a man who craps the bed and yells at things!?  I mean we gave Jeff Bridges an Oscar for that, so why not him?

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“My acceptance speech is ready to go!”

I know I’m desperate for something to watch during these times, but I don’t think I’m quite desperate enough to give this movie a pass.  Is it a terrible movie?  I wouldn’t say so as the performances are solid and I think the cinematography shines at certain points, but the movie is missing much of a point to it as it fails to commit to any one idea with certainty and instead tries to hit as many prestige notes as possible.  It’s a period piece (check) about an infamous historical figure (check) who is dying (check) and has a mental illness (check), there are just enough shocking moments of violence and gore to make it seem edgy (checkity-check-check-check).  Oh, and they bring up Hitler in one scene so I guess you add half a point for World War II as well.  Now all of this COULD have worked and frankly if you’re going to do a movie about a real person I tend to prefer a slice of their life over trying to cover everything in one fell swoop, but there’s no core to this; no consistent or engaging thread from which all the other ideas branch from.  Everything is kept in its own isolated little boxes of intrigue with no payoff for pretty much any of it which I guess you could argue is part of the point (all larger than life figures are really just men who will deteriorate and eventually die just like the rest of us), but there are still ways of getting that across without making the movie itself feel like a fractured mess; like trying to find significance in a fever dream.  Sometimes a dream is just a collection of meaningless imagery, and sometimes watching a dude poop the bed isn’t a greater meditation on our own mortality; especially when they layer in comical fart noises.

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“I had an accident…”     “Number one or number two?”     “All of the above…”

The biggest problem with the movie is its scattershot approach to its themes.  There’s one idea that’s running through the entire movie, and we’ll get to that soon enough, but there are so many characters, plot points, allusions, rhetorical devices, and scenes of characters looking meaningfully at things that it all feels for naught as it doesn’t come together in a satisfying way; like putting too many ingredients in a soup to the point that none of the flavors stand out.  It’s almost analogous to modern AAA video games which try to cover as many bases as possible with as many features as they can so that everyone is satisfied at the bare minimum level rather than exciting any one particular fan base, though what makes it different is that it’s not going for all audiences everywhere like what Marvel successfully pulls off with its films; rather it’s like a hodgepodge of pretensions; bits and pieces that will catch a critical eye but only teasing towards good ideas without actually developing them.  Do we learn anything about the historical figure Al Capone in the movie?  Not really as the movie seems to assume you know enough about him going into it which could be a fair point to make (it’s less important that it’s THIS PARTICULAR bad person than the fact that he IS a bad person), but the film can’t help itself with teases about a child he had out of wedlock and what he might be up to or throwing names at us like we’re supposed to know why they’re so important to the story.  Heck, there were characters that were talking to him over an hour into the movie, and I couldn’t tell you if they’d been introduced already!  The FBI investigation that goes nowhere, the hallucinations don’t reveal a lot that we couldn’t have inferred already by this being an Al Capone film, and it just ends on a squib of a non-ending; like the filmmakers ran out of time making this and had enough money left in the budget to flash up a few note cards.  Maybe my attention span is not suited for a movie as multilayered as this one is clearly trying to be, but a person with twenty fishing rods with mediocre bait isn’t necessarily going to catch more fish than using one rod with some actual meat on it, and the movie’s lack of focus just exposes the cynicism of its ambitions.

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“ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED!?”

Now there is one running theme throughout the movie that you can say is the big hook here, and that’s the deterioration of a person as they slowly succumb to a life-ending disease, and how that affects the people around them.  If we strip everything else out, the FBI investigation, the historical figures, all of that and we focus on this one topic, do they handle it well?  At best I’d say that, like everything else in the movie, it’s a mixed bag.  There are moments that work, there’s a plot thread that I think COULD have worked sandwiched in the middle of it, and it leads to some solid performances.  I think the mistake here though is that the POV character throughout all of this is Capone himself; not his wife who has to take care of him, the FBI agents assigned to watch him as he becomes more and more incoherent, or even his friends and family who want to know if he’s got any hidden riches stashed anywhere.  That last bit, by the way, is one of the more intriguing storylines they come up with where lots of people for various reason (the doctor in particular I feel like SHOULD have been the main character here) are trying in vain to keep him coherent long enough to find where he supposedly stashed millions of dollars away as it covers a lot of different emotional ground.  The doctor is self-serving but in a rough spot, his crew wants to use it to maintain his legacy and to keep the business going, and his family is running out money to take care of him; at least in the way that he expects them to.  The moments we see things from their perspective, particularly Linda Cardellini as his wife Mae, is when the movie finds its way an there’s a genuine bit of momentum, but instead so much of the movie falls on Al who I just had trouble relating to.  Even when he’s trapped in his own mind with delusions, he’s incapable of truly interacting with things and expressing himself which translates to a lot of staring, a lot of grunting, and the occasional bit of shouting at something that may or may not actually be there.  The third act comes to life for a minute in a moment of absurd historical inaccuracy where he feels like he’s at least DOING something, but it’s all for naught as things just return to the status quo as soon as it’s over.  Perhaps that’s what I’m chaffing up against the most and might be what I’m missing; the fact that it feels like nothing of consequence is happening and that by the time the movie is over we haven’t really gone anywhere.  There’s something to that in the sense that the end of someone’s life is rarely a climatic showcase of their greatest attributes in life but rather a slow and drawn-out process of inertial, but again that would have been a much better message to convey from the point of view of his family and friends instead of staying cooped up in his head.

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“Hey, boss!  You want to do something today?”     “No, I’m just gonna look at the birds.”     “Oh.  Well, can we do something else over here?”     “WE’RE ALL GOING TO LOOK AT THE BIRDS!!”     “Sure, boss.”

There are a few things worth praising here that show at least SOME creative verve and life and is perhaps why I didn’t truly HATE this movie.  Tom Hardy is definitely putting his all into this character who has to convey as much as he can through very limited means, and it’s worth praising how willing he was to be portrayed as utterly shameless and pathetic; drool coming out of his mouth, staring blankly into the camera, even sitting there like a lump with crap in his pants because the character is just incapable of doing anything about it.  The cinematography is solid with some very well shot and brightly lit scenes on his estate and the dream sequences, while kind of clichéd for the kind of movie this is, are at least well executed in their own little isolated piece of the movie.  Perhaps my favorite idea here that frankly could have carried a chunk of this movie is the radio show that pops in every once in a while.  It’s a show that dramatizes his own life as a cartoonishly over the top gangster stereotype that you can tell still has a bit of truth behind it which makes him feel uncomfortable, and they REALLY could have played this up as part of his declining mental state.  I don’t know if this was the intention (I hope it was because this is kind of brilliant) but I don’t recall anyone else in the movie being around when he’s listening to it which could be an indication of the further decline of his mental state which is way more interesting than having him walk around for twenty minutes in a dream sequence that doesn’t really amount to a whole lot.

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“That’s it for today’s episode of The Al Capone Show, and don’t forget, Al; they’re all out to get you and you’ll probably be stabbed in your sleep!”     “Did you hear that?”     “Uh-huh, Pops.  I’m sure it was a good ball game.”

Josh Trank has said that making this movie was therapeutic for him, and for what it’s worth I’m happy that he didn’t just burn out after the inexcusably awful Fantastic Four movie.  If this is the movie that he wanted (or even NEEDED) to make, then fine; you do you.  As far as the film itself, I just don’t think there’s enough a coherent hook to make all the effort feel like more than… well, I guess a therapeutic exercise.  It’s got big and devastating emotions throughout, but no catharsis or payoff.  It’s got some solid cinematography and decent performance, but not a lot of structure or pacing.  It seems tailor made to be the anti-Hollywood gangster film which is fine, but there are ways to do so without making it a tiresome slog to get through.  I’m not the biggest fan of Drive, but I got way more out of the subplot they did with Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman than anything in this entire movie.  I did not have fun with this as I was bored and frustrated through most of it, and unless you’re interested in the director behind it I don’t think there’s enough here to really recommend it.  I’d listen to that radio show in the movie though!  That cheesy nonsense sounded WAY up my alley!

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