The title for The Wannabe describes writer-director Nick Sandow’s homage-minded mob saga in more ways than one, as the film is less a revisionist take on the circumstances of John Gotti’s 1992 indictment than a tedious love child of Bonnie and Clyde and Goodfellas. In the opening scenes, Thomas Greco (Vincent Piazza) obsesses over media coverage of Gotti’s trial, posting fliers on the windshields of cars outside the courthouse, and fashioning himself a soon-to-be major player in mafia lore, watching James Cagney movies in his low-rent apartment. Sandow shuffles into montage mode from the get-go, introducing Thomas through a succession of archival footage and high points of Thomas’s day as an aspiring mobster.
The opening title card claims that the film is “inspired by true events,” but Sandow explores New York City’s history, mob lore, and masculine social power without significantly licensing the “inspired” tenets; rather, the film opts for yet another iteration of the outlaw couple, with the predictable outcome of drug use, tempers, and squandered riches ending the pair’s run. Thomas and Rose (Patricia Arquette) mope through the story’s first half with no money and, despite aspirations to strike it rich, few plans. After a failed attempt, through a confidant named the Twin (Doug E. Doug), to rig Gotti’s trial, Thomas takes to sticking up local poker games, all of which are run by the mob. As the riches pile up, so do the cocaine lines and bloodied faces.
Sandow uses the premise to mobilize cookie-cutter notions about both American capitalism and the ways mediated depictions of individual hoodlums fuels the hunger of a new generation. It’s the same, albeit inverted, premise as Public Enemies, wherein John Dillinger watches Manhattan Melodrama before being shot—realizing his myth being erected before he’s even underground. Even that scene’s revelation wasn’t anything particularly new, as Robert Siodmak’s Custer of the West has its titular warmonger attend a play in which he’s lionized just before his death. Thomas is on the receiving end of such mythologizing representations, building his persona around the depictions Dillinger and Custer helped inspire, but Sandow appears uncertain on how to proceed from this initial premise. Unlike Taxi Driver or Nightcrawler, which take a loner figure and convincingly chart his progression into a pathological sociopath, there’s no progression or deepening to the film’s commencing perceptions on Thomas’s desire for fame and fortune.
Even worse, Sandow hustles numerous supporting characters through the proceedings, most of them more exciting because they’re played by recognizable faces than for being an integral or enlivening addition to the narrative. If the film has a saving grace, it’s Arquette’s Rose; she’s a former beauty past her prime, looking for anything (love, drugs, violence) to jolt her toward the past. The casting alone reveals Sandow’s meta moxie, as the character is clearly modeled after Alabama from True Romance, only 5,000 packs of cigarettes later. Yet even here, Sandow gives the initial wink to Arquette’s previous role, but flatlines on further riffs that could play up the film’s self-knowing status as a movie about movies. Sandow has described the film as a goodbye love letter to old New York, but in the end, The Wannabe unintentionally plays as incompetent hate mail to the finely structured and intelligently conceived Hollywood mob pictures of yesteryear.