Jeff Smith 6:35 p.m., June 27
Review: The Last Godfather
The Last Godfather (aka The Dumb Mafia) is an American/South Korean co-production determined to acquaint Western audiences with South Korean comedy sensation Shim Hyung-rae, Seoul’s answer to Jackie Chan. This is one introduction you will immediately want rescinded.
Shim is a familiar face on Korean TV, but this is one of only a handful of the 100 films that Shim either wrote, produced, directed, or starred in (frequently at the same time), to reach our shores. According to his official bio, Asia Week magazine named Shim “one of Asia's most influential leaders in computer technology of the 21st Century. For the advances he has made in science-fiction filmmaking, the government of Korea recognized Shim as one of the most vital Korean thinkers of our time.”
There is nothing vital or thought provoking about The Last Godfather, a continuation of Shim’s popular on-screen alter ego, Younggu. In this telling, Younggu is the love-child of Mafia-powerhouse Don Carini (Harvey Keitel) and a Korean hooker he sought the services of while on the lam awaiting a stateside gang war to cool down.
Before stepping down as Mafia boss, Don Carini decides to personally oversee the training of the next Capo di tutti capi. The logical choice would be made man Tony V (Michael Rispoli, of Summer of Sam and The Sopranos fame), but Don Carini is all about family. He decides the honor should go to his middle-aged, mildly retarded son (Shim). When do the laughs begin?
The setting is obviously New York City, but thanks to Cecilia Montiel’s schizophrenic production design, the time period in which the film takes place is anybody’s guess. The obvious studio mock-up of a depression era tenement and a subplot concerning rival hoodlum Don Bonfante’s (Jon Polito) daughter Nancy (Levi’s model/actress, Jocelin Donahue) and the volunteer work she does at the orphanage where Younggu was raised, suggest a Warner Bros. melodrama from the '30s. Comedian John Pinette’s rotund presence as baby-faced hooligan Macho goes so far as to evoke silent screen comedian Fatty Arbuckle.
The gangsters wear their hat brims flipped-up '30s style, but if that’s the era, why does cinematographer Mark Irwin do his best to imbue the film with Technicolor hues more reminiscent of a Fox musical from the '40s? The film’s hybrid palette falls somewhere between shades of Gordon The Godfather Willis-mahogany and the bright, candy-colored coupes captured by Vittorio Storaro’s lens in Dick Tracy.
References to Sugar Ray Leonard (he was born in 1956) and The Lone Ranger playing in the background on a '60s television set don‘t help, nor do the wardrobe choices. With his flood pants and porkpie hat, Younggu looks like he raided Stooge Larry Fine’s '30s wardrobe closet. Vinnie’s (Jason Mewes) wide purple pinstripes and Beatles haircut suggests Carnaby Street in the '60s, while Nancy resembles a '50’s sock-hopper. When Mewes targets Nancy for revenge, his hired goon comes to the assault clad in '90s urban street gear complete with a hoodie.
The white elephant in the room is the obvious fact that Younggu is mentally challenged, an offspring of the stereotypical “Hollywood retardate.” He is a cute, cuddly naïf, inarticulate to the point where he makes Jerry Lewis sound like James Earl Jones, yet in the end, Younggu stands poised to make us feel superior about our own lot in life.
The film goes out of its way to be politically correct, playing down the “retarded” angle and playing up our hero’s divine nature. Younggu is referred to as a “dimwit” and “stupid boy,” but that as far as the name-calling goes. Oddly enough, the ’R’ word is brought into play and aimed at the opposition when Don Carini refers to Don Bonfante as “Don Bonretard.”
Nancy is Younggu’s Fay Wray. When Vinnie suggests than Younggu has more on his mind than friendship, Nancy leaps to his defense calling him “an innocent, incapable of thinking about what Vinnie suggests.” She earlier refers to St. Younggu as someone who “knows how to treat a woman“ and “brings out the kindness in upstanding people.”
There is even a tribute to Hollywood-retard poster boy Forrest Gump. Younggu not only invents the beehive hairdo and miniskirt, but the Big Mac as well. Stupid is as stupid does, for if the film does indeed take place in 1951, as a license plate implies, the latter discovery would take place four years before the founding of the McDonald’s Corporation and a full 16 years before the first Big Mac hit the griddle.
The biggest anachronism of all is Harvey Keitel. What are you doing, Harvey? Could it be as a friend suggests there is either a mortgage payment to meet or a new boat in your future? When one of Vinnie’s goons informs the actor, “these are mean streets,” I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. (I did a little of both.) Where does this South Korean cutup get his nerve big enough to defame both Marty and Harvey in such an untoward manner? Then again, Keitel’s explanation of how “bird poo-poo” makes its way to his vine-ripened tomatoes marks a career low point, and as such he probably deserves whatever abuse was administered.
The Last Godfather is currently playing at Reading Cinemas Gaslamp 15.
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