Review: ‘The Offer’ miniseries chronicles making-of ‘The Godfather’ on Paramount+

WTOP's Jason Fraley review 'The Offer'

If you’re not already a subscriber, Paramount+ is hoping to make an offer you can’t refuse.

The first three episodes of the 10-episode miniseries “The Offer” premiere on Friday, chronicling the “making of” arguably Hollywood’s greatest film: “The Godfather” (1972).

It’s hard to pass judgment after just three episodes, but so far, it’s a double-edged sword of (a) delicious Hollywood references jam-packed for movie buffs, and (b) unnecessary mafia subplots that exist only to stretch the story. While it lacks the subtle artistry and symbolism of Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece, it is still addictive for behind-the-scenes junkies.

Created by Michael Tolkin, who wrote Robert Altman’s “The Player” (1992), “The Offer” declares in the opening credits that it’s “Based on Albert S. Ruddy’s Experience of Making ‘The Godfather.'” The former computer programmer turned Paramount producer famously battled budget restrictions and casting cynics to bring “The Godfather” to the screen.

Ruddy is played feisty by Miles Teller, who revives his hungry determination from Damien Chazelle’s “Whiplash” (2014) to project nerves of steel in pitching Gulf + Western: “I’m gonna make an ice-blue terrifying film about people you love.” He also tries to win over gangster Joe Colombo (Giovanni Ribisi), who worries it’ll give Italian Americans a bad rap.

“My movie is about a family that understands the cops, the government, the entire criminal justice system is prejudiced against Italian Americans,” Ruddy says. “It’s about immigrants and what they need to do to find justice in a world that’s set up to keep them down. … If you [read the script], not only will you let me make my movie, I think you’ll support it.”

If his underdog gusto recalls “Whiplash,” his wide-eyed romanticism for the Hollywood studio system echoes Chazelle’s “La La Land” (2016) as he watches an audience react to the twist of “Planet of the Apes” (1968). Sitting astonished through the end credits, the restless TV producer of “Hogan’s Heroes” has an epiphany about his big-screen destiny.

“This is what it’s all about: 300 people reacting in real time just feeding off each other,” Ruddy tells his girlfriend. “You can’t get that experience on television. You’re just in your living room looking at a small f’n box. … The movies is the only time I ever saw my mother cry. You can’t put on a price on that. That’s magic, baby. I need to be in the movies.”

Teller’s naivety contrasts with the cautious wisdom of suave studio executive Robert Evans, who is told, “You can’t live off ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ forever.” Matthew Goode (“The Crown”) lends Evans a nasally but gravelly confidence, embodying the #MeToo life of a Hollywood playboy with the power to cast his bride Ali MacGraw in “Love Story” (1970).

This patriarchal society is mocked by Ruddy’s secretary Bettye McCartt (Juno Temple, “Ted Lasso”) and Ruddy’s girlfriend Francoise Glazer (Nora Arnezeder, “Army of the Dead”). They cruise the studio lot on a golf cart criticizing Hollywood as a bunch of pathetic men trying to get laid while shutting actual doors of opportunity in women’s faces.

In spite of this flawed Tinseltown, genius creatives find subversive ways to work within the system for a Hollywood Renaissance. Ruddy and Evans defy dollar-driven financiers Charles Bluhdorn (Burn Gorman) and Barry Lapidus (Colin Hanks) to foster the creativity of novelist Mario Puzo (Patrick Gallo) and director Francis Ford Coppola (Dan Fogler).

It’s these two characters who give “The Offer” its charm. We first meet Puzo depressed after the flop of his latest novel. Owing money to a street tough, his wife tells him to “write what you know,” but he thinks the gangster genre is all played out with Italian-American stereotypes. His wife urges him to make it more personal, sparking a lightbulb moment.

“It’s not about a gang, it’s about a gangster’s family,” Puzo says. “The oldest son is a hothead, the middle son is sweet but weak, and the younger son is a war hero who wants nothing to do with the family business, but the Don wants this son to rise above the family business and become a senator … but Michael’s destiny won’t let him escape.”

Hearing the film’s moral distilled into a few ham-fisted lines is a guilty pleasure, as is Ruddy convincing Coppola (fresh off “Patton”) to adapt the script. He initially passes, saying, “As an Italian, I don’t want to glorify mafia violence,” but when Ruddy starts listing scenes (horse head in the bed, Sonny at the tool booth), Coppola’s eyebrows raise.

This leads to Ruddy inviting Coppola to ambush Evans with a restaurant pitch, spinning around from an adjacent booth to say, “Why is ‘The Godfather’ selling more copies than The Bible? You think it’s about the drug trade in 1946 New York City. Not at all. It’s a metaphor for American capitalism, the American Dream, the mythic battle for control.”

The mind meld between Coppola and Puzo is the stuff of buddy-comedy delight. Amid serious disputes over a lack of tension in the hospital scene, they trade quips about pasta sauce and drink wine with their feet dangling in the pool. Puzo digs the warmer West Coast weather, while Coppola prefers the laid-back European vibe of Northern California.

It’s hard not to get excited right along with them when their dream actors connect with the material. Coppola insists casting an unknown actor as the star of the film. He says, “I know who Michael is: Al Pacino,” only for the casting director to scoff,  “He’s not Bob Evans’ type.” Ruddy breaks the tie: “He doesn’t have to date him, he just has to approve him.”

Anthony Ippolito is a dead ringer for Pacino, signing Off-Broadway autographs. At dinner, Pacino says he doesn’t see himself as a leading man until Ruddy flatters him by mentioning Coppola’s interest. Pacino gasps, “Coppola knows who I am?” Likewise, Coppola is ecstatic when Marlon Brando answers their letter agreeing to play the Don.

I assume the ensuing episodes will explore the financial challenges of making a Brando film on a $4 million budget. We’ve already seen Gulf + Western execs consider selling the rights to Jack Warner for $1 million, then balk at filming a period piece in New York. “Why not just make Michael a Vietnam vet?” Thankfully, Evans and Ruddy stick to their guns.

Throughout, “The Offer” insists that Evans and Ruddy not only put their careers on the line to make “The Godfather,” but also their lives. Raising the stakes, the miniseries shows multiple mob attempts to shut down the production, angry that Johnny Fontaine is a veiled jab at Frank Sinatra’s mafia ties. It’s enough to make Vic Damone turn down the role.

These mafia subplots work just fine when they involve actual threats to our main characters, the Hollywood filmmakers. However, they begin to jump the shark as Episode 3 ends with different crime families warring against each other. Hello! We’re here to show the making of “The Godfather,” not to pull focus just so we can milk a full 10 episodes.

It’s also overstuffed with inside jokes: the first line is “leave the cannoli;” a baker visits Colombo asking for a favor; Colombo holds a gun on a pull-chain toilet; a congressman rejects an offer like Vito rejecting Sollozzo’s drug deal; Ruddy rides to Brooklyn like Michael in McCluskey’s car; and Evans finds a dead rat inside his book jacket in bed.

Directors Dexter Fletcher (“Bohemian Rhapsody”) and Adam Arkin (“Masters of Sex”) keep things moving at a breakneck pace, rather than the patient, operatic style of Coppola. Their opening crane shot of a Catholic parade introduces the Little Italy setting but lacks Coppola’s symbolic mise-en-scene of food stands blocking the Christ madonna in “Part 2.”

Then again, we probably shouldn’t expect a “making of” miniseries to rival the symbolic directing of arguably the greatest movie and sequel combo ever made. We should enjoy it for what it is, a loving homage, just as Isabella Summers’ music is just close enough to Nino Rota’s iconic score that it brings back memories of why we love the original so much.

As its own standalone piece of work, “The Offer” would be whacked by “The Godfather” faster than a bullet through Moe Green’s glasses, but as a nostalgic look at the behind-the-scenes machinations of a pivotal period of Hollywood and the struggle between artistic expression and commercial imperative, it’s still pretty fun. I can’t wait to watch the rest.

It’s no work of art, but riddle my car with bullets. I’ll gladly pay the toll. Somewhere a Paramount+ executive is measuring the mixed reviews from critics against the rave reviews from audiences and shrugging: “It’s not personal, it’s strictly business.”

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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