The very first thing that happens in Gotti is that the camera pans across the Manhattan skyline on the far side of the river, to land on John Gotti (John Travolta), turning around to regard the camera with practiced surprise, like the host of a cooking show welcoming us to their fake house. The second thing that happens is that Travolta opens his mouth, and this comes out of it: "Noo Yahk is tha greatest fukkin' city inna world". The third thing that happens is that I start weeping tears of pure joy that I have at last found the best So Bad It's Good movie of 2018, if not of the entire decade.

Gotti is a film made in support of a belief that I knew in principle that people held, but somehow assumed wasn't actually possible until just now: that Gotti, a mob boss who was uniquely bad at his job on top of being an evil murdering fuck, was a really good, classy guy. At least, I think that's what the film wants us to come away with. In point of fact, the film is such a delirious mishmash of scenes from all across its chronology, stitched together by the flop-sweat of some of the worst acting, across the board, in any movie in recent memory, I'm not sure what it believes, or even what story it's telling. Basically, sure, it's the story of how Gotti rose to power in the Gambino crime family, killed the boss to take his job, and managed to skate through one indictment after another until finally being convicted in 1992, dying of cancer in prison 10 years later.

It's when we try to go from basics to details that things get murky. The film was made with the endorsement of Gotti's son, John A. Gotti (played in the film by Spencer Lofranco), so it's no real surprise that the father-son relationship turn out to be the rock upon which the film is founded (as well as the rock on which the film is foundered). Insofar as there's anything even vaguely resembling a macro-structure, it's that Junior wants out of the Family, and so visits his decrepit father in prison to secure his blessing for that purpose (the old-age make-up and puffy throat cancer make-up used to make Travolta look like death warmed over are genuinely impressive, easily the crowning triumph of aesthetics in the whole movie). From here, the action flashes back, in no immediately obvious order and for no immediately obvious purpose, to show us moments in the life of Gotti père, mostly those which make him out to be a thoughtful strategist and do-gooder who only commits crimes as a means to better the community around him.

If one does not know much about Gotti's biography going into Gotti, as I did not, the film makes not even the most cursory attempt to explain it. It's just a bunch of scenes, going hither and thither, showing meetings between glowering men with Italian accents talking gravely, plus scenes of Gotti and his wife Victoria (Kelly Preston) raising their boys and occasionally sparring. It's messy - mesmerisingly so. It has the faded, smudgy quality of a fifth-generation photocopy, having thieved beats, lines, and themes from just about every New York mafia film on the books, but not bothering to notice that those ingredients, in all those other films, were fitted into a narrative frame work. The most generous reading of this I could possibly imagine making is that it's meant to be some kind of experiential biopic, where we feel the vibe of being Gotti in a series of heightened moments, without necessarily caring about the narrative development that holds those moments together; but even then, it would make sense for those moments to build upon each other, rather than simply spill out like the screenwriters have dumped out a bag of marbles. Those screenwriters, incidentally, are Leo Rossi and Lem Dobbs, the latter conclusively proving that Steven Soderbergh was indeed the genius of The Limey; nobody who wrote a film with such precise chronologically fracturing as that one could possibly have fucked it up so badly as Gotti does.

Though it's possible, of course, that Gotti actually had a good screenplay, and it has simply been mangled into incomprehensibility by director Kevin Connolly and his crew. This is overclocked, scattered filmmaking, cutting far too fast and seemingly at random, while scenes race by after presenting sometimes just a few lines of dialogue and establishing no plot points. It's visually chaotic and unsteady, too busy to feel lazy, but too sloppy to feel like the people responsible for capturing the footage were at all interested in taking the time to do things like work out blocking and lighting. Or rehearse lines.

Oh man, the acting. The surest sign of what kind of film we're in is that multiple actors lose their accents right smack-dab in the middle of a sentence, Travolta among them. And such accents! We're obviously in "studied The Sopranos for tips" territory, except that everybody involved seems to have tacitly agreed that The Sopranos is much too grounded and realistic for the fantasia that Gotti was to become (the exception is Pruitt Taylor Vince, playing Gotti's right hand Angelo Ruggiero with an obvious sense of concern that this was turning into exactly the movie it became. He also loses his accent in one scene). Travolta himself plays Gotti as an unfathomable combination of Ray Liotta, Donald Trump, and Super Mario, going for quantity (of accent, of volume, of gesticulations) as a sign of quality. But Preston is by far the most staggering member of the cast. Not only does she absolutely read as the least authentically Italian, she compensates with a nasal wail that makes her sound like she's gulping and shouting her vowels at the same time. And God bless, she goes for 100% in literally every moment, starting with her big breast-beating conversation about whether Junior can dress a cop for Halloween, and building up to the scene where the Gottis lose one of their children, and we are treated to the most fantastically dreadful, humiliating scene of crying I have seen in a movie. Ever.

If we are to have awful, inept biopics, best that they be made by people who are so deeply committed as everyone here plainly is. Connolly directs with the zeal of a true believer whose comprehension of the mafia, and probably humanity itself, clearly never evolved beyond seeing people's dorm room posters; the cast throw themselves into scene with a level of hammy abandon that is rare to see all in once place, especially all these years after people stopped making real melodrama. It is a sight, a movie going wrong in every possible way and convinced of its power and beauty at every turn. I am truly gobsmacked, and that is not something I have felt at a bad movie in far too long.