Netflixable? Scorsese’s eulogy for “The Irishman”

 

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Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman,” his epic telling of one mobster’s rise through the ranks to the moment Jimmy Hoffa disappeared, is his coda, his final statement on the mob movies he built his career on.

It’s Scorese’s “Unforgiven,” a Catholic’s atonement for all the gilded Oscar glory that was a byproduct of his decades of gangland epics, from “Goodfellas” and “Casino” to “The Departed.” His charismatic monsters and amoral lowlifes burned themselves into the popular consciousness, and maybe — all these decades later, he’s ready to pass a harsher judgement on them.

There’s a hint of “mea culpa” to this curtain call, a recognition that audiences ate up these dead-eyed murderers, extortionists and English-and-fashion-butchering creeps. Here he acknowledges that as colorful as they might seem, the “made men” were never “men of honor,” living by a “code,” loyal to their “brothers.” They were the very essence of Hannah Arendt’s“The Banality of Evil.”

Scorsese goes Biblical, here, a mob movie maestro who wants to make his last statement on the subject — not wholly a departure from his earlier films, just UNDERLINED here — easily understood. When he puts intertitles, peppered throughout the film, of how this goon or that one met an untimely end, we’re reminded of Romans 6:23 —“the wages of sin is death.”

Scorsese and his “Schindler’s List” screenwriter frame the story with a lonely, elderly mobster, Frank Sheeran, voice-over-narrating from his wheelchair, trying to give meaning or at least importance (thus his extraordinary claims) to his awful life. As if his abandonment and loneliness were  punishment enough for decades of violence, thievery and betrayals. Truthfully, that “sentence” is not much of a reward for three hours and 29 minutes investment.

Why did I keep thinking about Steven Spielberg through Scorsese’s funereal mob film finale? Because Spielberg opposed allowing Netflix epics like this bloated, under-edited indulgence into the Academy Awards. A blank check from the streaming service to our greatest living director to tell the mob tale to end all mob tales only meant he’d never hear a Studio Voice of Reason suggesting he thin out the repetition, give it clarity and PACE while losing some of the staggering number of “travel” scenes.

Maybe rely a little less on a repertory company so old he had to “de-age” them for scenes from their early days. Because any way you cut it, “Irishman” is an old man’s movie, and not just in the scenes where Robert DeNiro is meant to be 45 years younger than his 76 years. De-aged DeNiro punches and kicks like he’s scared he’s going to break a hip.

Does this stylistically unstylish picture stand with the lurid glories of “Casino,” the pulse-pounding narrative drive and cinema semiotics of “The Departed,” or the charismatic cynicism of  “Goodfellas?” Give me a freaking break.

The same people who soiled their Underoos over “Roma” are throwing confetti at “The Irishman,” as if excessive running time alone conveyed gravitas. It doesn’t.

Still, I enjoyed it, wrestled with the film’s “one man’s explanation” of the mob’s ties to the Teamsters, the Kennedys and Nixon, and that one “made man’s” utterly unverifiable claims about the end of mob-tied Teamsters chief Jimmy Hoffa. I relished going back into Scorsese’s “Casino” era world of plush leather banquettes in candlelit Italian clam bars and ristorantes, the ritualistic sips of wine and fresh supply of Mafia euphemisms — “I heard you paint houses,” somebody needs to visit “Australia” — mixed in with anachronisms from the mid-2000s.

Hearing “It is what is it” is like seeing a cell phone whipped out in Philly traffic in 1960.

But that enjoyment, unlike the movie, has its limits. Netflix is the perfect place for it. It’s a talky, borderline-plodding two-part mini-series of a mob movie, peppered with Oscar winners from DeNiro and Pacino and Pesci to Anna Paquin as well as an underused Harvey Keitel, with Ray Romano and Bobby Cannavale and even Little Steven Van Zandt as the mob’s favorite lounge singer, Jerry Vale.

“Indulgent?” It’s even longer than the Marvel movies Scorsese has been bashing as “not cinema.” He’s not wrong in his criticisms, and “Irishman” is actually about something — unlike your average comic book movie. But he is pandering to the fans with this cast, even if he is trying to make them question, as he apparently does, why we admire these goons and love immersion in this “tough guy” world.

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We follow World War II vet turned refrigerated truck driver Frank Sheeran (DeNiro) to his introduction to Russ Bufalino (Joe Pesci, out of retirement and back in the mob).

“I met what was going to turn out to be the rest of my life,” Frank narrates.

Stealing meat for the mob, running errands, moving into debt collecting and then the rough stuff, we see Frank’s story unfold as a flashback on a cross-country road trip that he and his wife and Russ and his wife took in the red letter year 1975.

The women are introduced, and shoved into the background. As Frank’s complicity grows, his quick turns to violence to settle any beef set in, and his involvement with Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) just immerses him deeper into “our thing.”

His only judge? His daughter Peggy (Lucy Gallina, later Anna Paquin) recoils at his rare displays of violence, his creepy employers and the secrecy she starts to sense is hiding the ugliest truths about her father.

DeNiro’s performance is of a piece with his Jimmy Conway (“Goodfellas”) and Ace Rothstein (“Casino”), a man caught up in his circumstances, but one who only occasionally questions them. His remorse is scattered throughout “The Irishman.” He picks up on his daughter’s judgement, which she demonstrates from an early age. He’s trapped. I have to say I find Frank less interesting as a character than DeNiro’s comical mockery of a mobster, Paul Vitti in the “Analyze This” movies. Vitti, like Frank, is not a deep man, not someone who lets himself think too much about what he does. He can’t. He’s more Michael Shannon’s “The Iceman,” a pitiless dullard. Frank’s only pathos comes in his grasping at fame, telling his story from that wheelchair. We’re allowed to think how full of it he probably is.

Pesci gives a more interesting performance here, totally stripped of the amusing, over-the-top rage that characterized his earlier Scorsese mobsters. Russ has mob myopia. He sees protecting Frank as making himself righteous, even as he’s pushing his protege into mass murder.

Pacino is a lot more Hoffa-like than I expected, less of the “Hoo hah” Al of too many performances in recent years.

Paquin is a visual archetype, a silent judge parked in the middle of a movie where everybody talks too much, drinks too much and does what’s expedient, never what’s right. There is no forgiveness here, no Virgin Mary to pray to. Only condemnation.

The peripheral characters played by Romano, Keitel and Cannavale come and go with such little fanfare that one wishes they’d been left out if you’re not going to do much more than introduce this universe of infamous mobsters — Giancana, Salernos, Genoveses and Columbos — and colorfully-named also rans — “Whispers” DiTullio, aka “The OTHER Whispers.”

The exposition isn’t quite endless. But with so many characters, blending the Kennedy election “fix,” the mob’s loss of Cuba to the Bay of Pigs and the Kennedy assassination to Hoffa’s corrupt Teamsters war with Robert F. Kennedy and a drawn-out finale — the film’s only moments of suspense — Scorsese and screenwriter Steve Zaillian have a lot to juggle and we have a lot to chew on.

Too many “Goodfellas,” it turns out, don’t spoil the broth. But they damn sure water it down.

And an epilogue that meanders past the climax and all but peters out doesn’t leave one so much fulfilled as deflated. That adds up to an OK picture, I thought. Not a great one, and not one of Scorsese’s best even if I’m glad he got to make it.

And I’m glad it’s on Netflix, where one can take it in at leisure, in smaller bites than the Feast of the Seven Fishes Scorsese has insisted we all sit down for, where nobody can hear my “Jesus, Marty, GET ON with it!” but me.

2half-star6

MPAA Rating:R for pervasive language and strong violence.

Cast: Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Anna Paquin, Harvey Keitel, Ray Romano, Bobby Cannavale

Credits: Directed by Martin Scorsese, script by Steve Zaillian, based on the Charles Brandt book.

Running time: 3:29

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22 Responses to Netflixable? Scorsese’s eulogy for “The Irishman”

  1. Marty Hopkirk says:

    “DeNiro’s performance is of a piece with his Frank Conway…”

    Did you even watch Goodfellas?

    • Yeah. And I reviewed it and the review ran in newspapers all over America. Did you? My point is that Jimmy wasn’t the bright light at the center of that story, a reactor/semi-background presence, understated “don’t draw too much attention” type. Frank is Jimmy moved to the very center of the story.

    • Bret says:

      It was ok not even close to Goodfellas or Casino .. The music in the earlier scenes made me want to turn it off..It seemed like 10 minutes would go by with no dialect and when there was dialect you couldn’t hear it because of the annoying music playing in the background 👎

  2. Olivier Piel says:

    It is incredible that, out of all the critics on Metacritic, you were the only one calling this “film” for what it is: Bloated, repetitive, pandering…yet, still, satisfying. A perfect summary of this “binge” Netflix culture.

    PS: You are also right on Roma.

  3. is ixs says:

    First how can Rotten Tomatoes give your review a fresh ! Second your review was the movie I saw not the movie so-called experts saw . Third Godfather of Harlem is more of a portrait of that period than the boring bloated pretentious The Irishman . Also if anyone wants to see an examination of mortality and regret and the price one pays for a life of crime they should check out the third Godfather film . St.Marty is a little late to the party .

  4. Steve Barr says:

    One more thing to add to my previous post . Marty is not our greatest living director . That began with Roger Ebert . Francis Coppola with his Godfather trilogy and Apocalypse Now are achievements that have yet to be matched by anyone working today .Also in Godfather of Harlem Forrest Whittaker , Paul Sorvino , Vincent Denofrio , Chazz Palmenteri , Gian Carlo Esposito and the actor who played Malcom X .are as good or better than Pacino , Pesci , and DeNiro in The Irishman .

    • Coppola was washed up and knew it after the Grisham adaptation. Scorsese has had a David Lean career, every outing a potential masterpiece, the odd misstep mixed in there. Always watchable, and Nolan is one or two films from supplanting him altogether, but for now, Scorsese is it. Don’t recall Ebert ever saying that, but then he was comically high on John Hughes movies for the longest time.

  5. Steve Barr says:

    The best review I’ve read of this pretentious overblown gangster movie . Thank you . I will not drink the Scorsese gangster movie kool aid like most people seem to be doing .

  6. preyerdesign says:

    I have to agree with the gist of this review. Compared to Scorsese’s other mob flicks, this one seems dull, slow and blandly familiar. Pesci’s character made the biggest impact on me, but even his role seemed a bit subdued, tired and old. Sadly, this feels like one too many mob movie from Scorsese.
    The little editing tricks—for instance the movie’s byline that was cut between shots of highway lane markers slowly diverging, or DeNiro’s voiceover (sort of) unexpectedly transitioning to a live action shot, all felt not-new, a little forced and thinly spread out. In Good Fellas, Casino and The Departed the pace and intensity and novelty is gripping and it constantly builds. But this movie feels as old and tired as the actors look and act.
    The music feels equally uninspired. Knowing what Scorsese has accomplished before, with his fresh brand of shocking novelty, suspenseful plot lines and uniquely inspired soundtracks, it thus makes this film feel like a trip to a depressing cafeteria, instead of an exciting, expensive and unpredictable night out.
    I honestly do not understand the 25 or so five-out-of-five-stars reviews. How so many?
    (Just for the récord I wanted to like this. I was cautious with my expectations, but knowing DeNiro, Pesci, and Pacino were in a new Scorsese film I couldn’t help but expect something more interesting, captivating and meaningful than this.)

    • Gjacobi says:

      “…feels as old and tired…”
      Dear god, that is the point, as an artistic decision. I’m sorry, I like this site, and appreciate the intelligence of the commentators, but to decry the pacing in comparison to GoodFella’s or to, frankly, draw anything but the most surface comparisons between Deniro’s performance here and GF, seems reductionist in the extreme. I would just say I find Pesci quite good in this, with real, true actively gravitas, and the scenes between Pacino & Deniro to be surprisingly wonderful. Deeply felt. Weighty.

      Cmon now.

      • Pesci was good, an original turn. DeNiro? Not so much. And that contributes to the film’s weariness, that and Scorsese’s somnambulent pacing and efforts to cram so much in it. Make it a “Netflix Two Part Event” and maybe it’d work better. It is fair and correct, by the way, to compare it to EVERYbody involved’s earlier collaborations. I’d say the lack of flash, style and brio weren’t “artistic decisions,” but a failure of editing and a willingness to coast on past glories. Why do you think he cast his A-Team?

      • gregory jacobi says:

        Though certainly the pacing was slow, I did not find it somnambulent but, rather, purposeful. There are times I watch GoodFella’s and a voice in my head says ‘this is a sort of perfect filmmaking.’ But why should a different project by him, with different aims, different themes, and a different approach, be criticized for its pacing vis a vis GF? I’m (kinda sorta) confident in saying he wasn’t trying for the momentum of GF, but rather was up to something fundamentally different. (Now if it put you to sleep, there’s nothing I can say in defense.)

        I do think there’s an obviousness to the last half hour, and perhaps to the whole 3.5 hours, perhaps hammer hitting nail on head, and yet to me it’s carried out so effectively that I’m the guy who really is thinking about that final image, peering in at an old sad dying gangster through a crack in the door, weeks later.

        Maybe we can just agree that Nicholson was ridiculous in The Departed…

      • Alrighty then! “The Cell Phone Thriller” (a crutch screenwriter William Monahan will not let you pry out of his cold, out-of-ideas hands).

      • gregory jacobi says:

        Technology! Can’t wait for his Blog Thriller.

  7. frank says:

    An excellent review. Well written, clever and true. On a scale of 1 to 5 stars, I give it a 5, the best review out there and one which will stand the test of time. A couple thoughts: There are a lot of fun scenes which you do not discuss but your focus is on the film’s larger features. Your claim that Sheeran did not kill Hoffa (and in the way that he killed him in this movie) is an opinion and is wrong, but that is not what your review is about. But for this singular inaccuracy, I agree with everything you say and love the way you say it. My only additional criticism follows the age old rule that it is important that a story make the main character likeable or at least sympathetic. Do not break this rule. The Irishman does. In Donnie Brasco the main character is heroic from scene one, a true life uncover cop who broke the real life mafia. The Godfather has a different twist, where we see a heroic young man (literally a war hero) take up arms against the world which murdered his father, and then watch his slow descent into that world’s evil. There is no moralizing in the Godfather, but at least Michael is good before he becomes evil. Even in Casino, Rothstein runs a square house for the betting public,. He is a loving father and a loyal husband and should never have taken up with that tramp! In Goodfellas, another Scorcese film, It is okay if Jimmy Conway is thoroughly evil since he is not the main character, who himself is a flawed, funny and a very human sort of crook (certainly not a killer). This movie has none of that. The director and screenwriter try to humanize the main character by putting 2 talky nursing home bookends on the film. It doesn’t work. This sort of didactic moralism never works. The viewer does not care if a homicidal hitman ends up in a wheel chair in a nursing home. These scenes off as artificial “filler.” The only way to have made this particularly bad man sympathetic, would have been to show his unionizing days with the real Jimmy Hoffa (not the cardboard character played well by Pacino) in Detroit. My 2c. The book actually shows this side of Big Frank, who spent years working for Hoffa doing some good deeds for the blue collar working man in Detroit, proving that God gives even the lowest scum on earth least one redeeming quality. In this way Pacino would have become more real as a person (as he was in the movie “Hoffa” for instance) and Sheeran more sympathetic to the audience. The movie would have been better. ps: Very fine review! (pps: I have read the book and met Frank Sheeran in his heyday. True.)

    • So you were there and have the inside dope on who killed Jimmy Hoffa, and how? Has the FBI dropped by? No? You are talking through your hat. I questioned Sheeran’s credibility and motives for making his claims, which are dubious. Neither you nor I was there, so your “wrong” declaration for questioning an abandoned old man trying to give notoriety and meaning to his life through his unsubstantiated claims is misguided and…wrong.

      • frank says:

        rogerinorlando, I actually was there; i saw frank wack him out in that suburban home and we traveled there together, which was dicey. things had to be coordinated. I am from delaware, where my friend had his local jiimmy gave him and he was the leader of all of us, so do not speak of what you are cluelessabout. Say what you will but you are wrong.

      • So a commentor named “Frank” is making this claim from out in the void, and expecting strangers to believe it. I see from your IP address that you’re posting from Ivyland, PA, which does help your credibility. So does the foolishness of making such a claim on the Internet, where anonymity doesn’t exist. So, Taormina’s Pizza or Tony’s Place? Never mind. The movie reinforces a few mob stereotypes — not real sharp, brag-lying. Fuggedaboutit

  8. michael g m says:

    For once, I actually find the the majority of the mainstream movie commentators’ reviews to be spot on with this star filled flick. As for this movie review I think it’s author has some sort of bug up their ass about these kind of films to begin with so this film never had a shot with the writer of this article. Needless to say all his reviews will now be suspect to me because his taste in cinema reeks throughout the article

    • Gee, how will I get through the day with that sad knowledge? Actually, I know and love the genre, have interviewed Scorsese several times and count myself a huge fan. All of which anybody could glean from the review. Which you, bless your heart, did not bother to read.

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