By Ty Burr
With “Capone,” Tom Hardy arrives at the late-Brando stage of his career ahead of schedule. And when I say “late-Brando,” I don’t mean “The Godfather,” although that gangland classic is clearly part of the new movie’s DNA. I mean the willful, bonkers Brando of “The Missouri Breaks” and “The Island of Dr. Moreau” — the Brando who talked in funny voices and occasionally turned up in women’s clothing, both of which Hardy does here. The British actor works his gonzo Method madness with such rigorous control, though, that he’s mesmerizing to watch even when the movie around him is losing its mind.
Which is to say that “Capone” is certifiably nuts, not very good, and I couldn’t take my eyes off it. Proceed with caution.
The year is 1947, and Al Capone is a ruined man. Released some years earlier after a decade in prison on tax evasion charges, the former Chicago kingpin has become enfeebled and delusional from the late stages of syphilis, contracted in his youth. He lives in a baronial Florida mansion with wife, Mae (Linda Cardellini), son Al Jr. (Noel Fisher), and a staff of household servants and musclemen, but they’re starting to sell off the furniture, and the ghosts are beginning to outnumber the help.
Writer-director Josh Trank — he made the smart found-footage superhero movie “Chronicle” (2012) before foundering with the critically reviled “Fantastic Four” (2015) — has created a phantasmagoric hall of mirrors rather than a traditional movie, one that shifts back and forth between reality and the decaying horror show in Capone’s mind. It’s hard to tell which is worse. Having already suffered a stroke, the dying gangster is bloated with bile and bodily fluids, his irises rimmed a demonic red, his bowels betraying him on a regular basis. Inside his head is a viper’s nest of conspiracy theories, some of which may even be real.
The FBI, for instance, is staking out the mansion, although some of the men Capone sees lurking in the trees are certainly not there. No matter: He’ll yell at them all. A visit from an old criminal acquaintance (Matt Dillon) starts with the two swapping dialogue from Marx Brothers movies and ends with a horrific basement torture sequence that may or may not have happened. At one point Louis Armstrong (Troy Anderson) turns up, singing “Blueberry Hill.” At another, Capone stands up during a home-screening of “The Wizard of Oz” to belt “If I Were King of the Forest” along with Bert Lahr. That last scene is pretty marvelous, actually.
Cardellini is a rock as the much-abused Mae Capone, anchoring the movie as solidly as she did “Green Book.” Fisher is unexpectedly touching as the son, and Kyle MacLachlan is a hoot as a folksy family doctor who bans cigars and shoves a carrot in Capone’s mouth. (He looks like a deranged Bugs Bunny.) Everybody seems to be after a satchel containing $10 million that may or may not exist and that, in any event, Al has mislaid.
Trank is working with a groaning board of cinematic nods and influences: “The Godfather,” obviously, and “Citizen Kane” and “Scarface” (both the 1932 original and the 1983 remake). Toward the end there are some smatterings of “Apocalypse Now” in the lagoon out back. If “Capone” seems beholden to any source, though, it’s Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining,” with almost as many shocks behind the hallway doors of the Capone mansion as can be found at the Overlook Hotel.
Something in the miasmic air of both buildings frees up an actor’s hambone, and in “Capone” Hardy makes Jack Nicholson look downright demure. He squeezes his voice up into a quizzical quack and lurches through the proceedings like a paranoid grizzly bear. He pukes in wastebaskets and soils the bedsheets, shpritzing against the dying of the light. The performance is comical, sorrowful, ridiculous, bizarre, but does it get to any truths about the historical Capone? Does it say anything about a megalomaniacal greed gone mad at twilight?
Not really. But watching the star wheel around the estate wielding a solid-gold tommy gun while dressed in adult diapers is to witness a craziness that feels uniquely American and perhaps even more geographically precise than that. As Dillon’s Johnny tells his old friend, “You know, this is what happens when people spend too much time in Florida.”