Irishman, The (United States, 2019)November 18, 2019
With the freedom offered to him by Netflix, Martin Scorsese has crafted a narratively complex, visually arresting account of mob hitman Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) and, in the process, reunited with some old friends and brought new ones to the party. Although 209 minutes might be the perfect length for a streaming mini-series, it’s a little too long for theatrical consumption (especially without an intermission – including one might have improved the experience). The film’s lengthy middle section, which comprises about 65% of the running time, is damn near perfect – two-plus hours of arresting drama as good as anything Scorsese has ever put on film. But the movie suffers from an unfocused first 45 minutes and a meandering final half-hour.
Last year, Netflix rode Roma to the Oscars and scored big. Although the company doesn’t release viewing figures, one has to wonder whether Roma wasn’t as big a streaming hit as it was with critics. If that’s the case, the reason is clear: Roma is a theatrical production through-and-through. It works far better on the big screen than the small one. The same isn’t true with The Irishman. Recognizing that the majority of his audience would be watching the movie at home, Scorsese tailored the experience for that venue. If you have a long attention span and a large bladder, the theatrical version offers the benefits of communal viewing. But I can’t argue that it’s going to lose much (if anything) on Netflix.
It has been a quarter of a century since Scorsese last teamed up with his favorite early-career leading man, Robert De Niro. The two of them worked together on three of the 20th century’s best films: Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas. After Casino, however, diverging career paths and logistical hurdles prevented a reunion, although several attempts were made. De Niro’s return to Scorsese’s orbit reminds us of how good an actor he can be when he’s not making silly comedies. This is the first time De Niro has done anything Oscar-worthy in at least 20 years (although he was nominated for Silver Linings Playbook – a nice performance but I think the name and reputation were more responsible for the plaudits than the work itself).
The Irishman is based on Charles Brandt’s I Heard You Paint Houses, an account of Sheeran’s life that culminates with his claim to have assassinated Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). No one really knows the truth about what became of Hoffa on July 30, 1975 but he has not been seen since. Contrary to urban legend, he wasn’t buried in Giants Stadium. There are numerous theories about his demise and whereabouts and, although Sheeran’s story matches enough of the facts to give it a degree of legitimacy, there are many skeptics. Whether or not it’s true doesn’t diminish the film’s impact. Scorsese is telling a story and the degree to which parts are speculative matters little (if at all) in the final assessment.
The Irishman is framed as a collage of Sheeran’s memories. We first meet him (at the end of a lengthy unbroken shot wending through the halls and rooms of a nursing home) near the end of his life in 2003. He takes us on a journey that reaches all the way back to the 1940s and spends a majority of the running time in the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s. Although the Hoffa assassination is a major element of the story, The Irishman is framed as a biography/character study of Sheeran from long before he met the legendary Teamsters president until well after the man’s disappearance. Ultimately, however, the relationship between these two men gives the movie its octane and The Irishman is less arresting during the periods when Hoffa isn’t around.
The first act details Sheeran’s meeting with mob lawyer Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and his introduction to key members of the Philadelphia mob, including Felix DiTullio (Bobby Cannavale) and the “Gentle Don,” Angelo Bruno (Harvey Keitel). (As each mob figure is introduced, Scorsese provides an amusing on-screen caption indicating the man’s date of death and the manner by which he shuffles off this mortal coil.) By the late 1950s, Sheeran has become sufficiently important in gangster circles to warrant an introduction to Hoffa. A strong friendship develops, continuing through the 1960s and into the 1970s. During that period, the movie focuses on a number of historically significant events in which Hoffa (or the mob) has an alleged involvement: Kennedy’s election, the Bay of Pigs, the President’s assassination, Hoffa’s incarceration and subsequent attempts to re-take control of the Teamsters, and the Detroit “meeting” in July 1975.
The Irishman feels like “vintage” Scorsese more than anything he has done post-Casino. Part of the reason is the return to a mob story although, in this case, his perspective is restrained. The heat of Goodfellas has been replaced by something more reflective. Sheeran is a good soldier but we read his pain in De Niro’s expression. The presence of so many familiar faces enhances the film’s connection to Scorsese’s 1990 masterpiece. The director was able to lure Joe Pesci out of retirement by offering him a role so unlike those he played in Goodfellas and Casino – a quiet, restrained character – that the actor couldn’t resist the challenge. Pacino is in fine form – larger than life, dominating every scene in which he appears. It’s hard to believe he and Scorsese have never before worked together. This is his third pairing with De Niro – they famously “met” in Heat and again crossed paths in the awful Righteous Kill – but it’s the first time they have exhibited meaningful chemistry.
The Irishman lacks strong female roles. Actresses like Kathrine Narducci and Aleksa Palladino fill the “faithful wife” parts. Anna Paquin, who plays Peggy, one of Sheeran’s daughters, is underused. There’s enough material here for a strong supporting turn but the script doesn’t pursue the angle with vigor. Peggy is conflicted about her father and his lifestyle but, after a lot of staring and uneasy body language, she is conveniently written out.
The Irishman represents the first time Scorsese has made heavy use of CGI. With the movie spanning such a long time period, and with no appetite for casting multiple actors to play the major roles at different times in their lives, he has turned to CGI to “de-age” De Niro, Pacino, and Pesci – allowing them to play their parts throughout the ‘40s, ‘50s, ’60, ‘70s, and (in some cases) beyond. This is some of the best computer de-aging we have seen to date – rarely is the computer’s manipulation evident and there’s almost no “plasticity” (in contrast with the recent Gemini Man). Post-production took an unusually long time even for a Scorsese film because he wanted to get this element “just right.” This is an instance of a filmmaker applying CGI as a tool rather than as the focus of the production.
Over the years, Scorsese has made his share of dark, oh-so-serious dramas. This isn’t one of them. Although not as openly comedic as The Wolf of Wall Street, there’s a thread of dark humor running through The Irishman that leavens the grimmer elements. From the tongue-in-cheek “death biographies” of mobsters to the mafioso nicknames (“Not that Whispers…the other one”), Scorsese finds opportunities to get us to laugh (or at least chuckle a little), and not always when we expect it. He has also toned down the violence. Oh, there’s bloodshed and one especially brutal beating, but this is tame compared to his past work and in the nursery when set alongside some of what earns an R-rating in today’s blood-soaked cinema.
As Scorsese’s first streaming effort, The Irishman offers a new vision of what this limb of moviemaking can provide. Although arguably too long and arduous for theatrical viewing, it’s perfect for the more comfortable, relaxed confines of home viewing when the prospect of immersing oneself in a director’s creative vision for 3 ½ hours is less daunting. Whether seen on the big screen or a small one, The Irishman is among 2019’s best motion pictures and should receive its share of Oscar attention in 2020.
Irishman, The (United States, 2019)
Cast: Robert De Niro, Aleksa Palladino, Kathrine Narducci, Anna Paquin, Jesse Plemons, Stephen Graham, Ray Romano, Bobby Cannavale, Harvey Keitel, Joe Pesci, Al Pacino, Domenick Lombardozzi
Screenplay: Steven Zaillian, based on the book “I Heard You Paint Houses” by Charles Brandt
Cinematography: Rodrigo Prieto
Music: Robbie Robertson
U.S. Distributor: Netflix