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'The Offer': 10 hours of self-indulgence about the making of 'The Godfather'

Miles Teller as Al Ruddy.
Nicole Wilder
Miles Teller as Al Ruddy.

Michael Tolkin, who wrote the Hollywood satire The Player years ago, also wrote the new ten-hour Paramount Plus series The Offer, about the making of The Godfather. He explained the creative process this way: "The only story I knew about making The Godfather was that Mario Puzo got into a fight with Frank Sinatra at Chasen's. So I had five minutes in the show written, and I just needed nine hours and 55 minutes more to fill it in."

Between the battles over choosing Francis Ford Coppola to direct and Al Pacino to star, plus the now-familiar tangles of the production with actual organized crime figures, with a little bit of an infuriated Frank Sinatra (who had seen a little too much of himself in the book's disreputable crooner) thrown in, Tolkin might have taken those five minutes and stretched them to two hours. Or even to four hours, or six. But at 10 hours, the material is stretched absurdly thin, and it makes every flaw show.

The hero of the series is Al Ruddy (Miles Teller), who was the producer of The Godfather. Not at all coincidentally, Ruddy is also one of the executive producers of The Offer, which states up front that it is based on his experiences. In other words, Ruddy has helped make this ten-hour hagiography where he is played by a movie star, and it winds up being a little like being at the world's longest dinner party sitting next to a guy who can't stop telling you about all the times he was awesome. Even if he was awesome, his company will wear thin.

But Ruddy isn't the only double-dipper when it comes to both making the series and being celebrated by it. The supporting hero of The Offer is none other than Paramount Pictures. You may recall hearing the word "Paramount" a couple of paragraphs ago in the name of the streaming service, "Paramount Plus." So both the primary individual subject and the primary corporate subject are documenting their brave shepherding of a movie that has already been celebrated over and over again, that's been honored about as much as any film can be honored.

Giovanni Ribisi as Joe Colombo.
Nicole Wilder / Paramount+
Giovanni Ribisi as Joe Colombo.

Apparently not satisfied with the extraordinary reputation of the film, the series also feels obligated to embellish it, including in a final card that says, "It is widely regarded as the greatest film of all time." That simply isn't true. And the need to stretch is a shame, because it is absolutely fair to say it's widely regarded as one of the greatest films of all time! That should be enough! But not only is The Godfather not "widely regarded" as the single greatest film of all time, it's not even "widely regarded" as the best Godfather movie! (Ruddy, however, did not work on The Godfather: Part II.)

Apparently not satisfied with the extraordinary reputation of the film, the series also feels obligated to embellish it, including in a final card that says, "It is widely regarded as the greatest film of all time." That simply isn't true.

The making of The Godfather has been extensively documented in books, including last fall's Leave The Gun, Take The Cannoli by Mark Seal. Yes, the film is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, but that means it's already celebrated its 20th, and its 25th, and its 40th, and so on. There have been so many opportunities to talk about The Godfather, and it's not something that was lost for decades or underappreciated in its time. It was very appreciated in its time, and at every moment since. It's hard not to conclude we are not here to learn about The Godfather, we are here specifically to watch a version of Ruddy who solves every problem, rarely errs, manages everything with aplomb, is loved by all (including the mob), and eventually collects an Oscar while bathed in a blinding shaft of light that looks like he's directly under a spaceship about to land.

We first meet Ruddy when he is working for the Rand Corporation, and we follow him to his big break as one of the creators of Hogan's Heroes. He later goes to work for Paramount, where the legendary producer Robert Evans (Matthew Goode) gives him the job of producing The Godfather. A rote Hollywood tale of meetings, doubts overcome, scripts finished, genius unveiled and so forth follows. Goode does have himself quite a time playing Evans as '70s Hollywood made flesh, a walking and talking manifestation of excess and southern California. But ultimately, Evans takes a backseat to Ruddy, who is, at every turn, the hero.

Other than Goode, though, this is a series that doesn't serve its actors well. Juno Temple is so good on Ted Lasso and has been so good in other things, and here, she's in an underwritten role as Ruddy's assistant, Bettye McCartt, who in real life eventually became a successful agent in her own right, but who doesn't get much to do here except break up the wall of dudes who otherwise make up the heart of this cast. Ultimately, Ruddy is credited with driving her later success as well, meaning she becomes less a character than another story of his greatness, generosity and achievement.

Another issue with the casting is that because The Offer chose to cast people to play the actors in The Godfather, it can't actually show you any of The Godfather, which you might expect to be one benefit of Paramount Plus making a series about a Paramount movie. And unfortunately, the recreations of famous performances do not hold up at all well.

Perhaps nothing is more thankless in these ten hours — nothing, not even the silliest mafia caricatures — than the role of Marlon Brando. Justin Chambers is a solid ensemble actor, but asking him to play Marlon Brando — let alone Marlon Brando playing Don Vito Corleone — is like telling someone to ride a pogo stick out onto a frozen lake when you can already hear the ice cracking. He looks ridiculous, but it's hard to imagine anyone would not have looked ridiculous. There are things that should not be attempted.

Similarly, the series' reflection on Al Pacino is that he's (1) nervous and (2) short. Fifty years later, if your thesis about Pacino is "he excelled in spite of his height," maybe you don't have ten episodes worth of ideas, or maybe Pacino doesn't need to be a significant character in the mostly behind-the-scenes story you tell.

If The Godfather was famous for countering the extant flat portrayals of mafia figures, The Offer is a throwback to them.

Alongside the Hollywood story, we see a cartoonish presentation of Joe Colombo (Giovanni Ribisi), the reputed crime boss who begins as an antagonist of The Godfather and then becomes a collaborator. The Colombo sections have all the subtlety of a Saturday Night Live sketch, providing only caricatures of both the man and the people around him. (A line like "She's something else, that broad, isn't she?" will always play like a first draft of something more specific.) If The Godfather was famous for countering the extant flat portrayals of mafia figures, The Offer is a throwback to them. Ruddy, of course, becomes friends with Colombo and is responsible for skillfully navigating the complications of the relationship between organized crime and Paramount, just as he skillfully navigates everything else. In this telling, he can solve any problem except possibly bad weather.

The Offer is a regrettable example of some of the most pervasive problems that currently affect the booming business of limited streaming series, both because it's much too long and because it's built on yet another bet on the appeal of the already familiar. People might not be inclined to tar this with the same brush of yet another expansion of existing intellectual property — a comic book, a superhero, a board game — but it's the same idea. A lot of people are pre-invested in The Godfather; that acts as a hedge against a lack of interest. But it's not enough.

Yes, I'm going to say it, I must, I cannot help it, they have led me here: It is an Offer you should, in fact, refuse.

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Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.