Thursday, January 29, 2009

Reeling backward: "The Godfather, Part II"

A great number of film critics and scholars regard the sequel to "The Godfather" as being superior to the original. I am not among them.

The sequel, which came out in 1974 -- a mere two years after the original -- won more Oscars than its predecessor, including Best Picture for both films. It follows the saga of mob boss Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) in 1959 while interspersing the story with flashbacks of his father Vito's arrival in America in 1901 and his rise as a crime lord in 1917-1918.

Each film clocks in at around 200 minutes, making for a pretty long sit. "Part II's" plot unfolds at a much more leisurely pace, but I never find it boring. Alas, my lovely bride did not feel the same way, dozing through long stretches of a recent viewing.

My own take on seeing the movie for probably the 8th or 9th time is that the 1959 sections really sing, while the Vito Corleone stuff is actually a bit draggy. It's amazing to me that Robert De Niro won an Oscar for this role, which I don't consider anywhere near his best performances like "Raging Bull" or "Goodfellas."

It's also interesting that De Niro, who took over the part from Marlon Brando in the first movie (Brando being much too old to play a 25-year-old Vito), makes no attempt whatsoever to take any cues from Brando's portrayal of the character. There's none of the theatrical bombasity or the carefully veiled menace of Brando. Granted, this was supposed to be Vito 30 years earlier, and few men behave in middle age as they did as a young man (and woe to those who do). But I think if you showed each movie to separate audiences who hadn't seen them and told them the two actors were playing the same character, they'd be astonished.

And as much as I think the 1959 sequences with Michael are the strongest part of the movie, they don't anywhere near match the grandiosity of the original. This has mostly to do with the antagonists -- the rival Mafia figures who oppose the Corleone family. They're just not that frightening, or even interesting, as the group from the first movie. The triad of Barzini, Tattaglia and especially Virgil "The Turk" Sollazzo made for worthy adversaries. Plus Sterling Hayden as the imperial police captain. Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg) is the chief heavy in "Part II," and is so low-key that even his threats seem more like whining.

"Part II" is much more a character study than the original, which is probably why critics like it more. The exploration of the disintegration of Michael's persona has generated a lot of long articles in film periodicals that nobody reads. It's still a terrific movie, but there's a reason "The Godfather Part II" did not hold up with audiences over time. When you say "The Godfather," everyone thinks of Brando.

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