Martin Scorsese and crew go back to the well for another mobster film, but I wouldn’t trust the water.
When an aging artist gets the band back together one last time to hammer out a passion project it can go one of two ways: opus or folly. Martin Scorsese directs this gargantuan Netflix feature, The Irishman, with his veteran cast of Al Pacino, Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci. The project, based on a controversial “tell-all” from a self-described mob hit man, reportedly entranced De Niro, who labored to get the project off the ground for a decade. Now it’s here, all three and a half hours of it.
And I hated it.
Despite critical plaudits, including a gratuitous spate of Oscar nominations, I could barely watch this turkey. From concept to execution, I found nearly all of The Irishman to be either tedious, self-indulgent, or repellent. Often all three at once.
The Irishman (2019)
Frank Sheeran (De Niro) works delivery routes for the Teamsters union in Philadelphia. Rising up through the ranks, he comes under the guidance of a tough, old mobster named Russel Bufalino (Pesci). Working under Bufalino, he eventually becomes a strongman for Teamsters president, Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino).
Balancing working hits for Bufalino and muscle work for Hoffa, Sheeran gains importance in the underworld while losing the love of his oldest daughter. Events come to a head when an aging Hoffa tries to wrestle control of the unions away from the mafia, leading to a deadly test of loyalty for Sheeran.
Based on the book I Heard You Paint Houses, this ship gets off to a creaky start. Sheeran stuffs his latter day memoir with exploits, very few of which can be backed up. According to the book, Frank was the Forrest Gump of the underworld:
Running guns for the Bay of Pigs invasion? Him. Providing rifles for multiple gunman days before Kennedy gets assassinated? Guess who! Famous, unsolved mobster hit in Little Italy (way outside Frank’s home territory)? Yup, it was Frank. Knew the guy who did the Watergate break in? Hell yes. And of course, the cherry on the bullshit sundae is that not only was this mid-to-low level enforcer Hoffa’s best friend…he killed him!
It’s one thing to claim to have seen the Bigfoot. It’s another to claim to have one in your basement, right next to your hunting trophy of the Loch Ness Monster, and your functioning teleporter to the Roswell mother-ship.
The story is a load of horseshit is what I’m saying.
Scorsese seems to be literally adapting the memoir. Fact bubbles pop up under characters (fun fact, this person in a bit scene winds up shot in the head six times! Aren’t you glad you know this?) Between a frame narrative of Sheeran dictating his story to the guy who would posthumously write and sell his book, we get every excruciating detail of Frank’s career in crime.
I started the film without any background information. I figured, being a movie, it would, you know, attempt to explain itself. Half an hour in, assumed it was called The Irishman because Kennedy featured in it, and was expressly called The Irishman by Pesci. Then he died and I could not figure what the fuck this movie was supposed to even be about. It takes us another 30 minutes to meet Hoffa (which the movie is really about). The fact that Frank is Irish American hardly ever comes up. I counted two throw-away lines.
I know De Niro’s mother has Irish heritage, but he looks about as Irish as I look Chinese and he’s surrounded by Italians and is famous for playing Italians, so maybe they could have had people nickname him “Irish” or something so I fucking knew what was going on.
The long and short of this extremely long movie is that it’s essentially Forrest Gump, but with infamous crimes of the 60’s and 70’s. Being Irish means dick and bubblegum, and the movie forgot to bring bubblegum.
This movie got an egregious amount of awards for acting, which I essentially chalk up to “thinly veiled life-time achievement awards.” Because, with the exception of Pesci, there’s nothing special going on here.
- De Niro: De Niro is doing his “silent, soulful head tilt” routine here, which is meant to communicate that Frank has some kind of interior life beyond “I do violence whenever a father figure in my life asks me to.” It doesn’t work because Frank is not a complex or layered human being; violence is his only thing. A half-assed plot about trying to get close to his daughter feels flimsy as she (Anna Paquin) gets virtually no dialogue and is forgotten by the plot for hours. Not to mention she should shun him – he was a violent, absent specter in her life who divorced her mom to marry a pretty, younger waitress.
- Pacino: Pacino’s acting has been a caricature of himself for quite a while now. God love him, he tries to moderate his YELLING with a godawful accent for Hoffa. Unfortunately, he seems to forget to do the accent in 75% of the scenes. He’s become a one-note ghost of his early days. Sorry, Al, we’ll always have Dog Day Afternoon.
- Pesci: Joe Pesci does a solid job. He has real warmth as Bufalino, communicating that he cares for Frank…but business is business. His role allows him to be restrained and aloof, which works with his diminished physical presence. In all of Scorsese’s crime dramas, I’ve always found Pesci’s characters to be the most engaging.
The elephant in the room is the omnipresent CG. It is…not great. Now, for how heavily it is needed* for The Irishman, it’s a goddamn miracle that it works at all. But it still is off-putting in most scenes, and horrific in others. There are scenes where Pesci looks like Dobby the House Elf and De Niro looks like the bad guy from Final Fantasy The Spirits Within. Some effect with De Niro’s eyes consistently jarred me.
*It begs a question: if your movie needs so much digital trickery, are you perhaps letting the tail wag the dog? You’re starting from the premise that you need De Niro, Pesci, and Pacino to tell this story, so you need to jump through CG hoops to get them to look even passably like the roles they are in. In one scene, a supposedly young Sheeran beats up a man for disrespecting his daughter. You can see that it’s a 70 year old man trying to pull off violence while not breaking his own hip like bone china. You can’t tell me you can’t find other actors of an appropriate age to play younger versions or to, perhaps, BE THE ACTUAL STARS.
I’m sorry, that would deprive the old boys club of yet another plum role. I noticed all of the women are age appropriate and not enhanced. Of course, most of them are virtually nameless, have little dialogue, and don’t get billing. They’re also about 40 years younger than they’re on-screen husbands. So, you know, fucking Hollywood gender politics.
Besides CG, the practical effects are completely flaccid. I’ve never seen a car explode with less energy. It becomes a mockery: Scorsese sets up the same type of shot dozens of times – somebody says something ironically menacing, cut to a static shot of a house or boat or car, wait two seconds, the object explodes in a wet fart of a fireball. This was one of the most expensive movies Scorsese has ever made; the explosions, gun play, and gunshot effects are movie of the week stuff.
The Irishman feels like a Scorsese mobster movie. Or, rather, like somebody saw a Scorsese movie and decided they could one-for-one copy that style. If you’ve seen Casino or Goodfellas, you’ve seen The Irishman…just with better pacing, better scripting, a more judicious eye to trimming fat from the plot, and characters who actually look like human beings.
Every little tic and idiosyncrasy from Scorsese’s style remains; mostly because it seems nobody felt the need to cut a single, repetitive instance of it from the film. Like I mentioned with bad Stephen King works, when you’re so big nobody dares edit your stuff, what you get is a lot of bloated, self indulgent bullshit.
The Irishman was a chore to watch. I gave up three different times, the first being less than half an hour into the movie. The CG was so garish, I didn’t want to waste three more hours suffering through it. I gave it a second chance and managed to get through the Kennedy parts (where admittedly the pacing picked up to something roughly resembling a movie) but gave up again when it seemed the plot was just going to muddle from one stupid mafia conspiracy theory to another. Mafia killed JFK! Mafia elected Nixon! The Mafia faked the moon landing! Get the fuck out of here.
I finished the film, finally, and wondered what the hell the point even was. Frank Sheeran’s claims are utter bullshit on the face of it; you don’t need to be an investigative journalist to know somebody claiming to be behind all of the biggest, sensational unsolved mysteries of mob-land legend is completely full of it. Besides being a self-aggrandizing, pathetic figure, there’s nothing to his story that resonates or should be delved for hidden depths.
If the film had tried to explore how a life of terrible deeds led to a man being feeble and alone on his deathbed, creating incredible tales to make his own imminent extinguishment feel worthwhile, at least to himself, that would have been worth contemplating. To take him at face value, to say “Wow, this guy led such a sensational life, we gotta tell people!” is just to be the latest mark that Frank managed to exploit.