The American Dream is a 1989 crime epic directed by George Deacon and written by Alan Flynn, and is the last part of the Story of America trilogy, serving as a sequel to Coming to America (1982) and An American's Story (1985). The film begins in 1970 and follows the adult lives of Alphonse Scariane's sons Vincent (Andy Garcia) and Paulie (Ray Liotta) in the 1970's until 1981, focusing on their moving of the family business from the Irish and Russian-dominated New York of the late 1960's to Las Vegas, where they become involved in the drug trade, butt heads with the established crime lords of the city and fall prey to the hedonistic culture of the Seventies. The film also starred Johnny Depp, Alec Baldwin, Curt Ellersby, Dustin Hoffman, Moira Lang, Joe Pesci, Al Davis, Willem Dafoe, Carl Hughes, Jane Seymour, Lucille Owen, and Beth Sears.
The American Dream was critically lauded and was an enormous financial success, but in a much-maligned move failed to earn Best Picture (unlike its predecessors), although Deacon and Flynn both earned Oscars again, and Garcia won the Oscar for Best Actor. It was the last film written by the legendary Flynn, who passed away in June of 1990 after a fifty-year career in Hollywood.
The film is told partially out of chronological order, much like its predecessor An American's Story, beginning in 1981. Paulie Scariane (Liotta) is sitting on a park bench at the Santa Monica Pier in California, and he thinks back over the events of his life that led him to this place, narrating the . Throughout the film, brief scenes of an aged Paulie in 1981 return as he snorts cocaine and drinks and picks up a prostitute in Los Angeles, and is often interspersed with him frantically checking the news and changing motels every time he receives a phone call. Otherwise, the film follows a generally linear storyline.The story begins in 1970, with fraternal twins Vincent (Garcia) and Paulie, both in their early 20's, arriving in Las Vegas along with their aunt Carla (Seymour) and young cousin, Dominic "Scuds" Scusso (Depp). With a considerable fortune after selling off the family businesses in New York due to the mid-1960's migration of Italian-Americans out of New York, the Scariane brothers and their cousin set up shop at a suburban home in Las Vegas and look for work in the casino industry, eventually learning the trade of casino security and protocol at the luxurious Lagoon Hotel, owned by Benjamin Roth (Ellersby). Paulie is taken under Roth's younger brother Lou (Hoffman), who works as the casino manager and is an innovative gambling expert. Vincent, meanwhile, comes to befriend Tony Veccio (Pesci), a restaurant owner running a protection racket and nominally representing the Yorktown outfit in Las Vegas, which is bringing him into conflict with the established Crocetti family. Vincent and Tony both survive an attempted hit after a gunman shoots up the restaurant. Scuds starts acting as Vincent's bodyguard after an altercation with a drug dealer out behind the Grand Nevada goes awry and Vincent is stabbed in the leg.
Paulie comes to learn that the Roth brothers are frontmen for the Giordano family and that millions are being skimmed from the Lagoon's earnings and going back to New York, and that a percentage of that cut gets sent to the Las Vegas family as a kickback from the New York family for letting them operate in Nevada. Paulie innocently tells Vincent about this revelation in amusement, who in turn lets it slip to Veccio. The brothers are convinced by Veccio to knock off the skimmer (Frank Vincent) after he delivers his money to the Las Vegas outfit but before he returns to New York, and they make away with over a million dollars.With their newfound earnings and the suddenly rapid ascent of Veccio's outfit in power, Vincent develops alcoholism and a cocaine habit and begins a tempestuous relationship with a hustler named Jennifer, paranoid and unsure if she's using him or genuinely attracted to him. Paulie, meanwhile, is promoted to be one of the casino's top bosses by Lou and he begins greasing the system in Nevada, in particular warming up to James Crawford (Davis), the local county executive, who takes bribes from the Las Vegas family. Paulie also starts courting his daughter Sarah.
Complicating matters is Vincent's growing drug habit, which eventually Paulie develops as well. Veccio and his crew rob another skimmer, this time killing him and burying him in the desert all while making away with one and a half million from three different casinos, which brings the Giordano's enforcer Henry Spinaldi (Baldwin) to Las Vegas to oversee that the operation continues smoothly, and he tempestously meets with both of the Roths and the caporegime of the Vegas outfit, Phil Rossi (Carl Hughes). Spinaldi brutally murders a member of each of Vegas' minor crews, Italian or not, to make his presence felt, including Veccio's cousin, but nobody dares touch him as he is made and one of the Giordano's top lieutenants. As Veccio puts it, "We can touch nobodies. But Henry - he's a somebody."Vincent and Scuds' involvement in the drug trade and their backroom sales of cocaine, methamphetamines and heroin through the Lagoon without the Roths' sanctioning (or Rossi's) makes them a considerable side fortune, as does Paulie's skill working politicians such as Crawford and within a few years their fortune and influence only grows in the city. Veccio refuses to go near Spinaldi, who is infamous for his short temper and unforgiving cruel streak, and Vincent gets in an altercation with the enforcer in a restaurant parking lot while coked up that almost gets him and Veccio killed.
Ben Roth retires in 1976 and hands over the ownership of the casino to Lou, who promotes his protege Paulie to casino manager. Paulie's drug habit is nowhere near as problematic as Vincent or Veccio's, and he lies to the Roths when they ask him if he has anything he needs to tell them. The drug trafficking ring run by Vincent and Veccio only picks up steam once Paulie has a hand in the business which helps them skim profits from the casino themselves before Spinaldi can send anything back to New York with his men, and despite marrying Sarah, he continues to be dragged by his brother into the hard-partying lifestyle of Vegas, starting up a relationship with a call girl named Roxie (Sears).
Scuds is caught by Spinaldi selling cocaine through the hotel's call girls, but instead of punishing him, Spinaldi begins exacting tribute from Veccio and his crew, finding them more useful to him alive. At the same time, the FBI, led by Special Agent Hursten (Dafoe), has caught on to the Scariane's game and also suspects the skimming operation is fully blown. Paulie is arrested during a party north of the city while on a coke binge, and Hursten threatens to show his wife pictures of his infedilities if he does not cooperate. Paulie agrees to wear a wire the next time the brothers meet with Spinaldi, and is nearly discovered.
The FBI arrests Crawford for corruption and the Lagoon is threatened with closure unless they open their books. The stock market crashes in the Meltdown of 1979 and the Las Vegas economy goes into steep decline with the resultant dropoff in rich visitors. Veccio tries to flee with his money, and Spinaldi hunts him down to a hotel and murders him, Spinaldi revealing that he's known all along that it was Veccio who stole from the Giordanos and that his bosses commanded him to take him out once he ceased being useful. Shortly thereafter, Sarah catches Paulie with Roxie and files for a divorce. With Veccio dead, Vincent and Scuds begrudgingly start taking direct orders from him, and watch in horror as their crewmates are killed off one by one. One night during a coke binge, Roxie dies of an overdose and Paulie and Vincent bury her in the desert as well, and they muse about life and death and the stillness of the desert, as well as their family's history of crime.Paulie eventually deduces that the only way to take out Spinaldi is to turn him over to the FBI, but inadvertently rats out the entire management at the Lagoon as well as Rossi. Hursten promptly shows his true colors and reveals that he intends to arrest Paulie as well despite promising him a deal, due to his own ties to the New York bosses and their orders that the stealers of their skim from several years prior be dealt with. Paulie evades Hursten and returns home to find Vincent and Jennifer ransacking the place in a drugged frenzy before the FBI shows up to pick them up. After an altercation, Paulie accidently shoots Vincent in the chest, who then falls into their pool and dies. Jennifer runs away, presumably to be arrested or killed.
Wracked by guilt over killing his brother, Paulie's drug problem only becomes worse as the system keeping the casinos running slowly begins to unravel. Spinaldi and Paulie cut a deal to buy drugs from Mexico to try to stay afloat, but Paulie is double crossed and barely survives the attempted assassination at a gas station and goes into the FBI Witness Protection Program, agreeing to testify against both the Las Vegas family and the Giordanos if they'll protect him. Spinaldi tracks him down to Los Angeles in 1981, proving that Hursten has once again betrayed him, but this time Paulie manages to kill Spinaldi in a shootout in a motel and dumps him in the LaBrea Tar Pits.
At this point, the film resumes in the opening scene, and Paulie sees Scuds approaching him. They exchange a brief conversation in which Scuds reveals, as Paulie suspected, that he has been sent to Los Angeles, presumably by the Giordanos or Vegas family, to kill Paulie for stealing from the Lagoon, robbing their skimmers in the early 1970's and for killing Spinaldi. Paulie mentions, "I'm glad, at least, it was you," and they go under the Santa Monica Pier early in the morning. They comment briefly on the beauty of the ocean and Paulie accepts his fate. Scuds shoots him in the head and walks away. The camera holds on Paulie's body floating in the tide before and after scenes of the three generations of Scariane men - Carmine, Alphonse and finally Paulie and Vincent - are shown from all three films in the trilogy. Finally, Paulie's body washes out into the ocean and the picture fades to black after his blood is washed off of the beach by the water.
- Andy Garcia as Vincent Scariane
- Ray Liotta as Paul "Paulie" Scariane
- Johnny Depp as Dominic "Scuds" Scusso
- Alec Baldwin as Henry Spinaldi
- Curt Ellersby as Benjamin Roth
- Dustin Hoffman as Lou Roth
- Moira Lang as Sarah Scariane
- Joe Pesci as Tony Veccio
- Al Davis as James Crawford
- Willem Dafoe as Ronald Hursten
- Carl Hughes as Phil Rossi
- Jane Seymour as Carla Scusso
- Lucille Owen as Jennifer
- Beth Sears as Roxie
The development process for The American Dream began in mid-1986, when George Deacon and Alan Flynn accepted the pressures by Pacific Print, in particular powerful studio executive Barbara Welsh, to make a third, concluding film to the story begun with Coming to America and An American's Story, especially after having seen the box office and awards dominance of the sequel. Pacific Print initially wanted to make the third part of the trilogy the studio's tentpole film for 1988, but Deacon convinced Welsh to postpone the film until 1989 so that he would have more time to develop the story, especially after Carlio Brunzi died in August of 1986.
The obstacle facing Deacon and Flynn was that they had already covered all of the material from Brunzi's An Immigrant's Tale and had incorporated much of the plot of The Rat King in their previous two films, so they either had to write an original script based off of the preceding two films without Brunzi's input or try to integrate some of his other material. Flynn resisted the urges to draw from Brunzi's opus The Gangster, as he felt that it was not only too difficult to successfully integrate material from the lengthy and completely unrelated novel, but also because United Pictures had bought the film rights to the novel in 1984 following the success of Pacific Print's Brunzi-based franchise, and were planning on developing a miniseries.
Deacon and Flynn finally decided to incorporate the plots of Brunzi's 1968 novel The Arkansas Conspiracy and the 1984 Joe Pattini semi-fictitious book The City of Greed, about Las Vegas in the 1970's. The film would follow the general story ark of Brunzi's novel, which was about two Jewish gangsters trying to make their mark in Hot Springs, Arkansas during the early 1940's in the city's heyday, but use themes and background information from the Pattini book as their setting. They chose the name The American Dream for their film, after the name of the scrapped literary sequel planned for An Immigrant's Tale.
As the film was not directly based upon a Brunzi work, like the previous two, many of the characters were original or used names lifted from various Brunzi projects. The Roth brothers who operate the Lagoon Hotel, for example, are named after the two protagonists of The Arkansas Conspiracy. Tony Veccio was named after a minor character in Brunzi's The Rat King, and Henry Spinaldi was named after real-life Giordano crime family caporegime Henry Garibaldi, who operated in Las Vegas during the 1970's. The sequence in which Roxie the call girl dies of a cocaine overdose and is buried in the desert mirrors a passage in The Arkansas Conspiracy in which a prostitute named Ruby drowns on her own vomit while unconscious and the Roth brothers sink her in the Arkansas River.
When the project was finally put into production in late 1987, Deacon insisted on casting Andy Garcia as Vincent, impressed by the actor's performance in both the TV movie One Night in Miami and the TV show Havana' Vice as a recurring character. With the release of The Untouchables that same year, Garcia became a prominent and recognizable actor, and Pacific Print signed on to his casting in the film. As his fraternal twin, Deacon cast Ray Liotta, who was a relative unknown at the time, but Pacific Print more or less deferred casting decisions to Deacon and longtime casting assistant Doug Hope after his previous successes.
When Deacon had been casting An American's Story, he had wanted to cast then-TV actor Alec Baldwin as Nicky Girardi, but Baldwin's contract with CBS made this an impossibility and Sal Caparza got the role instead. Baldwin stated that he had always regretted not being able to take on the iconic role, and despite having finished shooting his role as James Bond in 1988's The Living Daylights and now being an A-list actor, Baldwin readily accepted the role of Henry Spinaldi, which Deacon had written to be similar to Girardi and had hoped Baldwin would be able to fill. Johnny Depp, known as a teen idol for his work on San Fran High, was cast as Dom "Scuds" Scusso by Hope over the studio's preferred choice of "Bad Boys" idol Kris Deckard, whose publicized partying and drug use concerned Hope and whom Deacon felt was more attracted to publicity than to making a serious film.
With the four main characters in place, Deacon and Hope filled the rest of the roles with A-list stars, including Dustin Hoffman, Carl Hughes and Willem Dafoe. Joe Pesci, who had appeared in minor films throughout the 1980's, was cast as Veccio in what many regard as a career-making performance. For the role of Roxie, the troubled and drug-addicted prostitute, numerous young actresses were auditioned, including pre-fame Sandra Bullock and Jennifer Aniston. Eventually, the unknown Beth Sears, only 19 years old during principal photography in 1988, was cast in a career-making and breakthrough role.
Release and Reception
Like its predecessors, the film was met with strong critical acclaim. However, critics were also largely unanimous in declaring the film an underwhelming end to the trilogy due to its lack of firm connections to the previous two installments and noted that it served better as a standalone Las Vegas crime epic than as an epilogue to the Story of America.
Roger Ebert said in his review, "George Deacon has forged a modern classic and it would be a true crime for the film not to dominate this winter's awards ceremonies in the fashion of its predecessors. However, the film lacks the critical element prevalent in both its predecessors - we aren't rooting for the Scariane brothers in the same way that we hoped Carmine Scariane would survive on the streets of Brooklyn and New York, and we aren't waiting in anticipation to see if they can triumph over their sins in the manner of Alfie Scariane."
New York Times film critic Frank Richards concurred, saying, "The film is neither the bloody epic of early 20th-century America that Deacon blew us away with in 1982, nor is it the dark double-revenge story mirroring the fall of the New York Mob in the 1960's. Weighed on its own merits, The American Dream is a triumph - a decadent homage to a Las Vegas that no longer exists, a riveting story of two brothers whose corruption brought about their inevitable fall, and a gory portrait of desperation and crime in an oasis of corruption. But this film, coming as the conclusion to a trilogy whose previous installments were groundbreaking jewels of modern cinema, will inevitably be compared to its predecessors, and that is where it unfairly will be called a disappointment."
English film critic Roger Fox ranked it as the best film of 1989 but agreed with other critics. "It is a tremendously good film, and Deacon's knack for storytelling is all over this film. It is shot, acted, written and designed exactly as it should be - yet two essential elements are missing. It first lacks the sense that we were a part of something greater, like its previous installments, and it lacks the characteristic setting of New York and its environs, which were critical to the personality of the series. An American's Story picked up right where Coming to America left off and didn't miss a beat - this story doesn't follow the same story arc as effectively. The American Dream is one of the best crime stories to ever be captured on camera, but it will forever hold the ignonimous distinction of not being the best movie in the trilogy."
However, Los Angeles Reporter critic Harry Hall disagreed, feeling it was the best film in the trilogy: "Deacon takes his movie to darker, more desperate depths than the previous films, if that is even possible. There are gorgeous, nude prostitutes being buried in the desert, a sociopathic hitman (played by James Bond) who would make Nicky Girardi blush, an appropriate aura of decadence so appropriate for a film about the 1970's, and a strong moralistic message about the inevitability of crime. This film is an appropriate epilogue to the Mafia, which has been under fire in recent years. If the trilogy is seen to mirror the evolution and life of organized crime in the 20th century, then this is the only appropriate way to end it - with a coked-out, desperate and paranoid Ray Liotta hiding in a hotel room as the forces of the law and the underworld seek to converge upon him."