THE IRISHMAN – Review
This is the ‘big one”. Really, there may be no other way to truly describe this new epic from one of the modern masters of cinema. Sure, the rumors are indeed true, it clocks in at three and a half hours. Mind you, it harkens back to the fabulous double features that played the golden age of movie palaces (theatre just couldn’t convey their splendor). But, how odd is it that this film’s main producer is the home-streaming service Netflix. However, this is a work deserving of the full screen, all-encompassing sound experience, because, after those 219 minutes pass, you’ll likely think, “More, please”. That’s the sign of a true artist. We’re talking of a filmmaker, who has been creating over 50 years: Martin Scorsese. He’s returning to some familiar territory, perhaps completing an incredible “trilogy”. And it’s all about outlaws. MEAN STREETS profiled the “low-level” street gangs, and the much later GANGS OF NEW YORK looked at the historical origins of the crime-breaking clubs of the late 1800s. But, these aren’t Scorsese’s supreme explorations of real-life organized crime lords. The trilogy really begins with 1990’s GOODFELLAS, then heads west five years later for CASINO. Now, almost 25 years later, Scorsese is back on his old “turf” with a pair of his most celebrated actors (and an iconic “newbie”) to tell the decades-spanning story of THE IRISHMAN.
The title nickname belongs to Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), who we first see in his “twilight years”, before we quickly flashback to 1975 as he begins a multi-state auto trip with his wife and his mentor/boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and his wife (Mr. B hates flying, but enjoys a long drive if he’s not behind the wheel). A gas stop sends Frank’s thoughts back another twenty years or so when he was driving an air-cooled truck full of beef and had engine troubles near the same spot. A stranger (who later turns out to be Russell) helps him get back on the road. Eventually, the lure of easy money compels Frank to sell off some of his cargo (under the table stuff). When the meat company accuses him of thievery, Franks goes to his union’s lawyer Bill (Ray Romano). After getting Frank acquitted, Bill introduces him to his not-so-distant relative Russell, who, in turn, introduces Frank to his boss, the mob “captain” Angelo Bruno (Harvey Keitel). Since Frank has a wife and daughters to feed he begins to do “after hours” jobs for Mr. Bruno as a “house painter” (mob code for hitman). Frank’s loyalty earns him a call (and “painting job”) from the powerful president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). As the years roll on, Frank and Jimmy become inseparable with Frank as his main bodyguard, while Jimmy becomes a surrogate uncle to the Sheeran girls. But Jimmy has his rivals, especially Anthony “little guy” Provenzano (Stephen Graham) who desire more power, and easy no-interest loans from the union’s coffers. After a stint in prison (AKA “going to school”), Hoffa tries to regain his old “throne”, but rumors of “squealing” to the “feds”, put Frank in a tough spot. This leads to one of the 20th century’s greatest mysteries. The film explores the impact of Frank’s actions on history and more immediately, his family, particularly estranged daughter Peggy (Anna Paquin). Can Frank return to a normal life, once he’s “out” of the house painting biz?
Scorsese puts his most frequent and oldest artistic partner (his muse, perhaps), DeNiro front and center of this tale that spans many decades. You could say that Sheeran is a gangster riff on FORREST GUMP, as he seems to be a witness (and occasional participant) in much of history, often rubbing elbows (or rubbing out) historical figures. Most of all, he is the dutiful soldier who carries out the orders and does the “dirty jobs” though he may wince and bow his head in remorse and regret. But he somehow remains true to his twisted moral code, often a stoic knight in service of his king (the mob kingpins). It isn’t until the last 30 minutes or so, the dour epilogue when De Niro truly delivers and shows us a heartbreaking vulnerability as time takes its toll. De Niro’s frequent acting partner, Joe Pesci, returns to the screen as the wizened, “calm at the center of the storm” Russell who is far from the hair-triggered “wildmen” he played in CASINO and GOODFELLAS (which nabbed him an Oscar). He’s quiet, but his stern gaze can stop any goon in his tracks. His tight-lipped demeanor works well with his equally “all business” superior Keitel as Bruno. The flashiest “showie-est” role belongs to the often bombastic Pacino, who finds just the right “balance” as the colorful “workin’ man’s best pal” Hoffa. Too often in recent years, Pacino has almost become a bellowing, growling caricature, but under the guidance of Scorsese, his actorly excesses are kept in check until we see him as Hoffa “working the crowds” into a frenzy with his pro-labor rallies. And he’s just as entertaining when showing Hoffa’s quirks, whether it’s his hatred for tardiness or his love of chocolate sundaes, washed down with a cold Canada Dry ginger ale. If there’s any justice, Pacino’s take on this “flat-topped” pitbull should nab him a Supporting Actor nom (and maybe a win). Romano does a great job as the “legal eagle” as does another comedian, Sebastian Maniscalco, as a famous mobster. Ditto for the terrific Graham who goes “mano y mano” with Hoffa. And though she has few lines, Paquin is haunting as the unblinking daughter who is a reminder of Frank’s many misdeeds.
Speaking of reminders, of course, many viewers will contrast and compare this to the director’s iconic classics. But what really resonates is how he’s put a fresh “spin” on the genre, much as Scorsese did nearly thirty years ago. We know that he’ll get the period “look” , from the classic cars to the fashions, and the pop culture nods, including tunes blaring from radios and jukeboxes, to the entertainers (including a tribute to a funnyman from a previous flick), and even an establishing shot straight out of a TV staple (we boomers will smile at that helicopter zoom over the ocean and into a Florida mecca). Oh, and that “can’t teach an old dog new tricks” adage is disproven, by this master’s embracing of new technology (aside from the film’s producers). Using the latest in computer enhancement, De Niro and company get “digital facelifts” as good as any recent Marvel movie (yeah, we’ve heard Mr. S’s comments about those recent hits), enabling the same actors to see the characters through the ages, and not have to be replaced by “look-alikes” during flashbacks, or encumbered in an “Muthusala-mask” for the final act. Which brings us to another new facet of this mob story, thanks largely to Steve Zaillian’s provocative screenplay adaptation, the idea of the “survivor”, or the last enforcer left, when time becomes an adversary they can’t “lean on” or “muscle”. We’re shown how these near-unstoppable men finally are stopped, asking for help and sympathy from family, and being denied and often forgotten with their new routines more soul-crushing than any prison (or “school”). These sequences are given an extra dramatic jolt by Robbie Robertson’s music score (stick around for his original tune over the end credits) and the superb editing of Thelma Schoonmaker. Her gifts shine especially in the riveting doses of violence, from a late-night hit at an NYC eatery to the “roughing up” of a grocer during broad daylight (think of Sonny Corleone and his brother-in-law). and it’s all given a nostalgic glow by the cinematography of Rodrigo Prieto. Add this to the long, impressive list of Scorsese classics. THE IRISHMAN is one of the year’s best.
4 out of 4