By Noah Gittell
There’s an old joke: What does a movie producer do? Don’t worry, they’ll tell you. It’s hard to describe succinctly, though, so in “The Offer”, it takes ten episodes. On the surface, it’s a limited series about the making of “The Godfather”, but it’s really a defense of the producer’s importance, a chronicling of the deals struck, the arms twisted, the egos soothed. Of course, that’s assuming you can take it at its word. Its executive producer is Al Ruddy, who also happens to be the main character, the guy who in real life shepherded “The Godfather” to the screen. There are surely embellishments here, and probably some outright fabrications. At times, “The Offer” feels less like a factual history and more like a story being told by a barfly who wants you to know how great he is.
At least Ruddy (Miles Teller) is an endearing figure. He’s kind to his colleagues, committed to his work, and has an undying loyalty to the movies. After making the jump from television to the big screen, he is desperate to stay there, but his work on “The Godfather” would be enough to send most producers back to sitcoms.
It’s a good thing Ruddy is a master at managing personalities, from the hostile executives at Paramount to the uncompromising artists on set. Then there is the small matter of Johnny Columbo (Giovanni Ribisi), a real-life mafioso who has been tasked with shutting down the production. His friends think “The Godfather” reflects badly on Italians. It’s Ruddy’s job to convince the mob he has their best interests in mind.
The series toggles back and forth between the film’s pre-production, where Ruddy and his assistant (Juno Temple) work to cast the movie, scout locations, and eventually begin production, and the rising drama with the New York mafia. As Ruddy ingratiates himself with the mob because of his ability to deliver on his promises, it’s not long before he becomes part of the family. The threat of violence looms over every exchange, but the scenes between Teller and Ribisi are strangely affecting; just as the characters earn begrudging respect for each other, the actors forge a meaningful chemistry. It even seems credible that Ruddy would spend so much time with a gangster; after years of Hollywood baloney, it’s refreshing for Ruddy to be dealing with someone who speaks plainly and keeps his word.
There is rich material in “The Offer”, and for those interested in pure kitsch, there’s plenty of juicy gossip, recreations of famous behind-the-scenes moments, and imitations of famous actors. It’s rare to see an impression of young Al Pacino, but Anthony Ippolito is uncanny as the method actor, and Justin Chambers matches all the enigmatic charisma of Brando. Avatars for James Caan, Diane Keaton, and Talia Shire all show up, while long stretches of the series belong to Matthew Goode, who conjures a Robert Evans that measures up to the late Paramount VP’s explosive reputation. With a nasally timbre, proficiency with expletive-laden insults, and a gangly body that seems poised to break into dance at any moment, Goode fashions in Evans a delicious portrait of 1970s Hollywood, a guy who lives life on the edge of failure, talking his way in and out of trouble.
For most of the show’s ten-episode run, this is enough. The scripts written by Michael Tolkien (“The Player”) ripple with real Hollywood experience, which gives cinephiles something substantial to chew on as they blaze through the show’s cheaper pleasures. It gets too big a kick out of its violence; I sighed a little every time the plot left the Hollywood figures to return to its Mafia feuds. The chronicling of the on-set drama, meanwhile, scores cheap points from its half-hearted attempts at feminism, while the macho culture that “The Godfather” dissected is more nakedly celebrated here.
“The Offer” is a show about guts and brains, but mostly guts, and sometimes its delight in its own mythmaking too often feels like a slightly elevated version of HBO’s “Entourage”.
Ultimately, it’s difficult to weigh “The Offer” seriously because it starts out with its thumb on the scales. We know that everyone who stands in Ruddy’s way is a fool because “The Godfather” ended up being one of the 20th century’s greatest films. This fundamental flaw, conceived in its very origins, undermines what could have been a truthful story about the compromises of making great art, turning it into a cheap, albeit entertaining bit of Hollywood self-mythology. “The Offer” never was going to be able to live up to its source material, but it could have been better than just a pretty good story.
<The first three episodes of The Offer are now streaming on Paramount+.>