“The Many Saints of Newark” could be the pilot to a new Sopranos TV series.
It’s built that way, back-engineering stories, giving us the pre-mob don Tony Soprano and the family that made him a made man. It has a season’s worth of plot threads and an open-ended quality that allows some characters to be introduced and leaves others to enter the life of young, supposedly reluctant, supposedly “smart” mobster-to-be.
But the “origin story” that is the film’s chief appeal takes a back seat to “series pilot” requirements. The film’s biggest asset becomes a handicap. “Saints” never feels thorough, thought-through or complete, merely introductory.
Casting Vera Farmiga as Tony’s bitter-from-birth mother, the role played by Nancy Marchand, is the film’s master stroke. She is fierce and combative, and in her one moment of real reflection, resigned to the “idiot” “lazy” son who can do no right in her eyes, and almost accepting of her role in making him that way. It’s one of her finest performances.
Starting the story on the cusp of The Newark Race Riots of 1967? That’s the cleverest conceit of all, a moment of schisms coming to a head, a penny ante “numbers running” franchise of Five Families reckoning that the mugs and goombahs are clever enough to exploit, idiotic enough to misjudge and misunderstand.
The film opens with a cute “If these tombstones could talk” drift through a cemetery, with this or that character in voice-over remembering relationships, and who killed them and how.
“Saints” is basically the story of Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola), young Tony Soprano’s handsome uncle, a big influence on the kid, played by William Ludwig as a tween and Michael Gandolfini, the late James Gandolfini’s son, as an older teen. A running theme of the story is that young Anthony is always watching, often over-hearing what’s going on in the world of the adults who surround him.
The day his dad, Johnny Boy Soprano (Jon Bernthal, in a too-small role), is arrested at a card game is when little Tony sees his first shooting. Growing up with his dad in prison, he flees parental punishment and seeks Uncle Dickie as a surrogate father.
Dickie has come off like a stand-up guy, married (Gabriella Piazza plays Joanne), a little less racist than his family as he deals with numbers runners like Harold (Leslie Odom Jr.), mentoring little Tony, sympathetic to young Giuseppina, his father’s new bride. The first moment “Saints” feels like “Sopranos” to me is when we see one of those whiplash explosions of savage violence the show was famous for, and Dickie reminds us what sociopaths are like.
Dickie and Junior (Corey Stoll)are under the thumb of “Hollywood Dick” Moltisanti, their father, given a delusional, sociopathic edge by Ray Liotta. He’s the one who brings a much younger Italian bride Giuseppina (Michela De Rossi) home, a beauty who doesn’t speak English whom he can “groom” and push around and eventually push down the stairs.
But Dickie confronts his wife-beating father and beats him to death in his Cadillac. And then he cunningly covers it up to let us know this isn’t his first rodeo.
Over the course of “Saints,” Dickie will seek atonement through good deeds and generosity. He will strike up a relationship with his dad’s twin brother (Liotta again), imprisoned and something of a cultured sage. Dickie finds passion and tries to keep the peace in the face of a changing underworld, threats and disagreements within the family, especially with brother Junior. He will let us see the pasta-addicted pig in himself, and the savagery he can summon up when provoked.
And Tony? He watches, takes it all in, makes it known “I want no part of this” even though we know that commitment won’t last.
Odom’s screen presence makes Harold’s transformation from lackey to a Man on his Own easy to buy into. The character may be a thug, but there’s personal growth and “The Revolution will Not Be Televised” radicalization as he steps away from the “not in my neighborhood” and “white flight” joking Italian mobsters.
Nivola has a bit of a struggle, holding down the center as the story keeps jumping around, doing what pilots for series always do, throwing more characters into the mix — Big Pussy, Silvio (John Magaro impersonating stoop-shouldered, toupeed Little Steven Van Zandt from the series), Carmela, Paulie, “the usual suspects.”
The movie can’t hide its most obvious machinations, the “work arounds” built into using the son of the series star instead of a more polished actor in the part. Young Gandolfini may look right, but he gives the camera little more than the occasional dead-ringer-for-his-dad pose. Yes, here’s where Tony started to sense his size and ability to intimidate, and that’s where his love of what become “classic rock” (listening to Mountain, part of an “Original Hits, Original Stars” packed soundtrack) came from.
Immersing the viewer in that era, and in the early ’70s in the latter acts, gives the film both a hint of fading nostalgia — ice cream parlors and ice cream trucks, Mom and Pop stores — and period-appropriate grit, with barely more than a glimpse of the corrupt cops who largely let the Mafia slide and never hesitated to shake down a Black person who fell into their field of vision.
But the script? It’s scattered and never really comes together into something cohesive. It’s all “back story,” so the Greco/Roman tragedy of the saga is lost in “period detail” and “color” as it jumps around constantly, never settling in and getting under the skin of anyone.
There’s a joke, here and there, a laugh when this character is introduced or we’re shown how Littlest Tony sets up a numbers racket in his Catholic school. But the dialogue has been run through a Sicilian Slang Generator, with virtually every line from an adult peppered with “pazzo” this and “goomar” or “stronzate” that — insults, challenges or come-ons.
You can get away with depicting birth of the gold chain years and the Golden Age of the Sharkskin suit. But all this eating. It’s not just a stereotype anymore, no longer a “leave the gun, take the cannoli” punch line. It’s a cliche, although granted, an outsider who comes into this world (De Rossi’s Giuseppina) notices it and complains and mocks the men for it.
These gripes take me back to the TV series that conquered the culture back in the early 2000s. It’s just as plain now as it was then that it was embraced by an America that had stopped going to the movies, and hadn’t seen the scores of mob films that made everything about the show seem recycled from earlier bigger screen tales.
For me, the biggest boon if HBO is tempted into rebooting their greatest hit and Hollywood’s best Italian American actor make-work project might be they’ll finally make the case that Tony is as “smart” and “sensitive” as the character is described. I never shook that “Donnie Brasco” sense, backed by plenty of journalism about the “real” mob, that the only thing special about any of these mugs is how sociopathic and stupid they are, to a one.
Still, devotees of the series will get more out of these tainted “Saints” than the casual mob movie fan, and that’s enough.
Cast: Alessandro Nivola, Leslie Odom, Jr., Vera Farmiga, Ray Liotta, Corey Stoll, Michela De Rossi, Jon Bernthal, John Magaro and Michael Gandolfini.
Credits: Directed by Alan Taylor, scripted by David Chase and Lawrence Konner, based on Chase’s TV series. A Warner Brothers release.