Martin Scorsese and THE IRISHMAN (2019)

Movie Review by LL Soares

I’ve been thinking a lot about Martin Scorsese lately. I grew up on his films, and aside from about three of his features (not counting documentaries), I’ve seen them all. Even when he disappoints me, I look forward to his next one.

THE IRISHMAN is as good a reason as any to look back on his career.

It stars classic Scorsese mainstay Robert De Niro as Frank Sheeran, the Irishman of the title, who starts out as just another guy driving a truck and and becomes the confidante of mobsters and the powerful union president, Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), who led the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

Frank delivers meat in a refrigerated truck, and when he sees gangster Skinny Razor (Bobby Cannavale) in a restaurant, he decides to pitch a deal where he delivers meat to him at a reduce rate. Basically, he’s stealing from his employer to get in good with a mobster. When one of his shipments “disappears” and he’s hauled before his bosses, Frank, defended by union lawyer Bill Bufalino (Ray Romano) refuses to give names and refuses to admit he did anything wrong. This impresses Bufalino, who passes Frank’s name to his cousin, mob boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci).

Russell and Frank cross paths and soon Frank is working directly for the gangster. He becomes an enforcer and hit man, showing an early aptitude for getting rid of “problems” without any fuss. Frank moves up the ladder, becoming one of Russell’s most trusted associates. Eventually, he is assigned to keep an eye on the volatile Jimmy Hoffa. The union has an awful lot of money, and the mobsters want to make sure he continues to keep their interests in mind.

Frank becomes Hoffa’s right-hand man, while also remaining loyal to his bosses, including Russell, Angelo Bruno (Harvey Keitel), and “Fat” Tony Salerno (Domenick Lombardozzi).

Hoffa is the most powerful union boss in the country, but not everything is smooth sailing. There’s a younger guy who wants a piece of Hoffa’s empire named Anthony “Tony Pro” Provenzano (Stephen Graham, who was excellent as Al Capone in the HBO series BOARDWALK EMPIRE). Tony Pro is a new kind of mobster, brash and outspoken, and Hoffa takes an instant dislike to him. The thing is, the mob likes Tony Pro, and this also gets under Hoffa’s skin.  He’s especially angered when he sets up a meeting in Florida with Tony Pro, and Tony is late. He also shows up in shorts, which pisses Hoffa (who is in a full suit) off no end. These are acts of disrespect. From this point on, Hoffa pretty much refuses to work with Tony Pro, and does everything he can to undermine the guy.

Hoffa and Provenzano’s rivalry just gets more heated when they both end up in prison together. Hoffa is convicted of fraud, and Pro is convicted of racketeering. They have a meeting soon after Tony Pro shows up in the same prison, and Hoffa explains that while he himself won’t be losing any money due to the conviction, Tony Pro will be losing over a million. When Tony Pro gets angry about this, Hoffa takes obvious pleasure in screwing him over. This bad blood will just get worse over time.

When he gets out of prison, Hoffa tries to reclaim the presidency of the teamsters, but things are different now. He refuses to work with Tony Pro when he gets out, and he refuses to go along with the “suggestions” of the gangsters, thinking that he is above them and answerable to no one. In the long run, its Hoffa’s pride that makes him offend too many dangerous people, leading to his infamous “disappearance,” which was never solved (but which is revealed here, according to Sheeran’s story).

THE IRISHMAN is based on the book I HEARD YOU PAINT HOUSES by Charles Brandt, about the life of the real Frank Sheeran, adapted for the screen by Steven Zaillian (who also wrote AWAKENINGS, 1990, GANGS OF NEW YORK, 2002, and MONEYBALL, 2011)

First off, the acting here is impeccable. After a lot of mediocre (and bad) comedies, De Niro may have taken some hits to his reputation, but if there’s any doubt he still has the chops, THE IRISHMAN puts them to rest (he was also very good in a much smaller role this year in JOKER). While I found it odd at first that De Niro was playing a guy of Irish descent, that soon became irrelevant as the movie unfolds. Sheeran is a stoic guy who follows orders without hesitation, and who is not afraid to get his hands dirty, which is why the bosses trust him. He’s the strong, silent type, so it’s not the flashiest role of De Niro’s career, but it’s a strong performance, and it’s fascinating to watch this man’s life unfold over time.

Joe Pesci is amazing as Russell Bufalino. Russell is a soft-spoken but powerful man who is not questioned. There’s a hint of obvious menace to him, but he’s got a poker face and rarely raises his voice. Mostly he’s very subtle, and he’s the exact opposite of the character of Tommy DeVito that Pesci played in GOODFELLAS (1990). This is the kind of understated performance that leaves a big impression, and it made me sad that Pesci has made so few films in recent years. He’s one of the best actors we’ve got, and THE IRISHMAN made me want to see more of him.

Al Pacino is terrific as Hoffa, a loose cannon who thought he was bigger than the men he was working for, and ultimately, who refused to compromise when someone got on his bad side. His stubbornness and hot-tempered personality eventually proves to be his undoing, and Pacino does a great job with the role. He’s always a joy to watch, and here is no different.

A lot of the supporting players are also terrific, especially Stephen Graham as the brash Tony Pro, and Anna Paquin in a small but pivotal role as Frank’s daughter Peggy (played by Lucy Gallina as a child). Much has been made of the fact that she has just one line of dialogue in the film, but despite that she also leaves a big impression here. As a child, she was clearly Frank’s favorite, and while she was quiet and shy as a kid, she was always observing her father and his associates. A revelatory theme throughout the film is how Frank’s associates try to win her over throughout her life. Russell scares her; despite his soft tone, she’s nervous around him, refusing to say anything. Later, when Frank becomes Hoffa’s constant companion, there is a strong bond between Hoffa and Peggy, as he gets her to loosen up, eat ice cream, and laugh. Hoffa becomes kind of a buddy to little Peggy. It’s a silent hammer that falls when Peggy realizes that her father was responsible for Hoffa’s death, and it’s something she can never forgive him for, denying him her love as he gets older and starts to regret some of his decisions. Their estrangement is devastating to Frank.

Other good performance include Ray Romano (who impresses me more and more as a dramatic actor), Bobby Cannavale, and Jesse Plemons (of the shows FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS and Todd in BREAKING BAD) as Hoffa’s foster son Chuckie O’Brien. I also liked Louis Cancelmi as Sally Bugs and Sebastian Maniscalco as Joseph “Crazy Joe” Gallo. There are also a few interesting cameos, including musician and actor Steven Van Zandt (THE SOPRANOS) as singer Jerry Vale and comedian Jim Norton as the late, great Don Rickles.

The script is solid, and for the most part Scorsese’s direction is perfect.

Which brings me to my one gripe about THE IRISHMAN, which, while not a deal-breaker, is something that has annoyed me before.

First off, the movie is three and a half hours, and it feels it. The first two hours or so go by smoothly, but by the third hour, I was starting to feel a little fatigued. The movie has a leasurely pace throughout, and a lot of the time it works, because the characters are so good, but it drags a little toward the end. For a while now, I’ve felt that Scorsese’s films (since 2000) have been too long, on the verge of being overindulgent. The first time I felt this was when I saw GANGS OF NEW YORK (2002). There always seem to be aspects of his later films that could be tightened and cut down to correct the pacing issue, but Scorsese being Scorsese, I’m sure no one wants to suggest that to him. But this lack of tight editing has taken away from my enjoyment of some of his films.

THE IRISHMAN played briefly in theaters, so it could qualify for Oscar nominations (which I think it will certainly get), and then it went directly to Netflix, where I saw it (it has been available there since November 27th). If you saw it in a theater, then I’m guessing the slow parts (and overlong run time) were more of an issue. On Netflix, it’s easy enough to just take a break and watch the film in two installments. If you watch it that way, the pacing thing isn’t as big a deal, although it’s still noticeable.

While I consider this a flaw, I do not see it as a fatal one. There are enough things that are great about THE IRISHMAN that it can overcome my small gripe. I still loved it. And after I saw it, I found myself thinking about it more, which is the sign of a great film. It stays with you.

THE IRISHMAN is not my favorite film of 2019—some films I enjoyed more include Tarantino’s ONCE UPON A TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD and Ari Aster’s MIDSOMMAR—but it is an excellent motion picture and definitely worth seeking out. It’s a work of genius. I just thought it could be a little tighter.

Which brings me back to my original ruminations about Scorsese’s career. The man has given us some of the best films of modern Hollywood. His output has been nothing short of amazing. From his roots working for Roger Corman on films like BOXCAR BERTHA (1972), to the early days of MEAN STREETS (1973), and the bonafide classic TAXI DRIVER (still my favorite of his films) from 1976, to the powerful punch of films like RAGING BULL (1980) and GOODFELLAS (1990), other masterpieces like THE KING OF COMEDY (1982) and CASINO (1995), through the underrated small films like AFTER HOURS (1985) and BRINGING OUT THE DEAD (1999), through the controversy of the underrated (and very sincere) THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST (1988) and overlooked gems like NEW YORK, NEW YORK (1977) and ALICE DOESN’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE (1974). This is one helluva career we’re talking about. Add in documentaries like the definitive THE LAST WALTZ (1978), one of the best music docs ever, and his film preservation work and history-of-cinema docs like A PERSONAL JOURNEY WITH MARTIN SCORSESE THROUGH AMERICAN MOVIES (1995) and his history of Italian film, MY VOYAGE TO ITALY (1999). All I can say is “wow.”

I’m not as big a fan of his later films since the turn of the century, but I really enjoyed HUGO (2011), which was such an interesting departure for him, and THE WOLF OF WALL STREET (2013), which was so entertaining that I’d add to the list of his all-time best.

Through it all, I eagerly went wherever he took me, and even if a few times I was disappointed, I always knew I was in the hands of a master filmmaker. One of the all-time greats. And that hasn’t changed. THE IRISHMAN confirms that. It’s the work of a master, without a doubt. And he’s still going strong at 77. I am looking forward to whatever else he makes, and I hope there are more masterpieces to come.

I give THE IRISHMAN ~ four knives.

© Copyright 2019 by LL Soares


LL Soares gives THE IRISHMAN — 4 knives!


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