I had originally seen Scarface over 10 years ago but as you can imagine it left a lasting impression. I was going to write “but as you can imagine, if you’ve seen it, it left a lasting impression.” But after watching it again the other night I don’ t think it matters. Scarface is a part of our collective consciousness. Everyone has heard of it. Everyone knows at least one line. Everyone knows it’s Al Pacino. It is iconic and emblematic of the intense, graphic gangster movie the genre drifted to in the 80s and 90s. Movies like Goodfellas, Donnie Brasco and Casino were the spiritual successors to Scarface.
But I had a revelation watching it the other night with my son, who was seeing it for the first time. I contend, now stay with me on this one, that nobody actually likes this movie. It’s not a very good movie. That’s not to say it’s a bad movie. It’s fine. It’s just not very good. It doesn’t have a real story. It’s not much more than a series of scenes strung together. Sure, one could say that it’s the story of a small-time criminal from Cuba that becomes the biggest drug dealer in Miami. But there isn’t a story arc and as my son astutely observed, all the characters are static. Nothing of consequence happens in the movie. There are no turning points for the plot. Things just kinda happen on screen. Granted, the things that just kinda happen on screen are explosive, but usually they’re without any purpose of advancing the story or characters.
You see, in reality what people like isn’t the directing or the screenplay. What we all like is Al Pacino as Tony Montana. It’s the perfect storm of great actor and great character. He’s crazy. He’s funny. He’s unpredictable. He’s loquacious. He’s charming. He’s despicable. But because the story is so thin, Scarface feels to me less like a gangster movie and more like a reality show that revolves around one insane personality.
Tony Montana is like a Real Housewife of Beverly Hills + Kardashian + Phil Robertson. OK, maybe not so much the last part but you get the idea. In this reality show we just follow Tony Montana around as he engages in various drug enterprise responsibilities or mundane activities like buying a car, watching TV, having dinner or talking a bath. And in true reality show style Tony will occasionally fly off the handle at someone for the smallest thing. But instead of throwing chardonnay in their face, he beats them up in the men’s room or better yet, just shoots them.
I think director Brian De Palma might have understood this. It might be why the direction is so heavy handed. I suspect he knew he had a great thing going with Pacino/Montana but not much else. To compensate he chucked subtlety out the window and just started punching the audience in the face with “drama” and “meaning.”
I think the scene with Gina, Tony’s sister, dancing at the club is one example. The “tension” built for about 7 minutes (the same song in a ridiculous loop) before Tony bursts out of his seat and chases them into the men’s room where he beats up her date because he dared to lay a hand on her. Then he punches her himself.
Another was when (*SPOILER ALERT*) Tony is laying face down dead in the fountain in his foyer at the end of the movie and the camera pulls back to reveal the statue of the globe with the banner “The World is Yours” blazoned across it. It’s about as subtle as a sledgehammer.
De Palma also would change music queues in an instant just so you wouldn’t miss the point. There was a guy in the theater with us who I guess hadn’t seen Scarface before. The way he would laugh at the comedic moments felt like he was seeing them for the first time. At one point he started to laugh at something silly but then the music suddenly took an ominous tone which let us all know that regardless of how you may feel about what you just saw you should not under any circumstances find it humorous but instead understand that it is serious… deadly serious.
I could go on listing things I found subpar in Scarface but I’m not trying to trash the film. These things just caused me to consider why it is that so many people claim to LOVE this movie. I think I now understand why. So let me go on record saying that I think Pacino as Tony Montana is entertaining to watch but I don’t think Scarface is actually a good movie.
One final note about Scarface that is neither good nor bad but the other thing that struck me so significantly about Scarface is how totally 80s it is. Well, duh! It was made in 1983 and set in 1980. I know. But I have seen lots of movies from the 80s that don’t scream 80s as much as Scarface. It’s almost as if the film was made now but set in the 80s and the producers wanted to capture the essence of the 80s in the most unmistakable and recognizable way possible.The clothes, the music, the hair, the cars. It’s like De Palma was a time traveller from the future who picked the most quintessential 80’s elements to capture in his cinematic time capsule.
I know for some of you I have committed heresy to besmirch the good name of Scarface. I’m willing to hear your side of the story. Set me straight. Comment below, tweet (@cmselby) or on the Captions Facebook page (click here). In the meantime, pass this blog on to your movie loving friends. I’d love to get their take on it as well.