FILM REVIEW – CAPONE. With Tom Hardy, Linda Cardellini, Matt Dillon, Kyle MacLachlan, Katherine Narducci. Written and directed by Josh Trank. Rated R for strong bloody violence, pervasive language and some sexuality. 103 minutes.
Syph riff whiff
Josh Trank’s CAPONE is the work of a free man. Originally far more evocatively titled “Fonzo,” it’s a film about the legendary Chicago gangster at his ignominious end, puttering around his Miami estate suffering from neurosyphilis and crapping himself between incoherent outbursts while the Feds slowly strip the place of his belongings. It’s a rare mob movie without any flashbacks to the quote-unquote good old days, one that starts and finishes at the miserable finale of an empty existence. It’s kinda like if “The Irishman” had opened with the scene in which De Niro buys his own coffin.
I guess I respect this film way more than I enjoyed watching it. It’s a gutsy, confrontational art-punk kind of thing, one that makes more sense if you know Trank was just recently a young filmmaker of enormous promise, chewed up and spit out by the superhero industrial complex. The major studios’ abandonment of mid-budget films has deprived an entire generation of any chance to hone their craft on smaller projects, shoving not-ready-for-prime-time-players like Trank and Colin Trevorrow into the captain’s chair on massive mega-productions requiring entirely different skill-sets than their modest debuts.
There’s no learning curve allowed in franchise films these days, nor anything resembling apprenticeship and these stories always seem to end with someone getting fired from a “Star Wars” movie. (Of the five Disney “Star Wars” films released over these past five years, only “The Force Awakens” and “The Last Jedi” were actually completed by the directors originally hired for the projects.)
Trank’s 2015 take on “Fantastic Four” was probably an awful idea to begin with, turning the cheeky, early 1960s Pop Art slapstick shenanigans of Marvel’s first celebrity superhero family into a dour, Cronenberg-ian body horror nightmare. But as Walter Sobchack once said about the tenets of National Socialism, at least it was an ethos. Radically reshot and recut with all thumbs by Fox executives, “Fantastic Four” bled out as a monument to zero fucks given. The most incoherent mess unleashed upon theaters until “Suicide Squad” showed up the following summer, it was a $100 million movie that couldn’t even bother matching Kate Mara’s reshoot wig to anything resembling the pre-existing footage.
The curious “Capone” begins with our racketeer released from prison on compassionate leave, deep into dementia and in dire need of the adult diapers brought by his doctor, amiably played by Kyle MacLachlan. (Between this and his performance as Thomas Edison in Michael Almeryda’s upcoming, gleefully insane “Tesla,” the former Agent Cooper is proving indispensable in bizarre biopics.) There’s some discussion about a bag containing eleven million dollars that Capone is rumored to have buried somewhere on his estate, but his brain is such Jell-O pudding from the venereal disease it puts an end to the treasure hunt quickly.
As “Capone” wore on, I developed a weird, contrarian’s affection for the ugliness of this movie. There’s something strangely endearing about gorgeous, porn-star-looking Tom Hardy’s abject aversion to being handsome or even understood in most films, hiding himself behind masks, ugly makeup, and doing crazy voices that somehow make you enjoy movies as stupid as “Venom” despite your better judgement. Hardy could easily be a heartthrob but instead he’s a Mickey Rourke waiting to happen, and in “Capone,” he’s finally found a role that allows him to bleat incoherently like an addled Popeye the Sailor Man while noisily shitting his pants not once, but twice, onscreen.
I really liked Matt Dillon in this movie, playing an old friend of Al’s who is probably a ghost, the two of them hanging out listening to a radio drama about the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre and laughing about everything the show gets wrong. There’s a pretty great stretch early on that feels like Al Capone wandered into Overlook Hotel in “The Shining,” as Hardy anachronistically sings along with Louis Armstrong to “Blueberry Hill” and the movie attains a hallucinatory grandeur that Trank can’t quite maintain.
In 2014, Jon Favreau made “Chef,” a poorly-veiled, hugely entertaining and brazenly self-congratulatory account of his break with Marvel Studios, in which the “Iron Man” director starred as a culinary genius hamstrung by a corporate goon (Dustin Hoffman) and lusted after by Scarlett Johansson and Sofia Vergara despite weighing roughly 275 pounds and having all the onscreen animal magnetism of Jon Favreau.
Ultimately “Capone” feels like the same kind of therapy for Trank, less self-obsessed but still similarly obstinate, with a filmmaker doing whatever he wants for no good reason other than that he’s finally escaped the machine and because he can. Free at last.•••
Over the past two decades, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in WBUR’s The ARTery, Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.