(US - 2019)
Directed by Martin Scorsese. Written by Steven Zaillian. Cast: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Harvey Keitel, Ray Romano, Bobby Cannavale, Anna Paquin, Stephen Graham, Stephanie Kurtzuba, Kathrine Narducci, Welker White, Jesse Plemons, Jack Huston, Domenick Lombardozzi, Paul Herman, Louis Cancelmi, Gary Basaraba, Marin Ireland, Sebastian Maniscalco, Steven Van Zandt, Lucy Gallina, Bo Dietl, Aleksa Palladino, Jim Norton, Daniel Jenkins, Paul Ben-Victor, Patrick Gallo, Jake Hoffman, Barry Primus, Vinny Vella, John Cenatiempo, Action Bronson, Danny A. Abeckaser, India Ennenga, Kate Arrington, John Scurti, Louis Vanaria. (R, 208 mins)
A few years ago, it would've been ludicrous to imagine that the most eagerly anticipated film of the year would be a Netflix Original, but here's THE IRISHMAN, Martin Scorsese's long-in-the-works return to his gangster movie glory days of GOODFELLAS, and his first collaboration with Robert De Niro since 1995's CASINO. It's the most ambitious undertaking of Scorsese's career, a story that spans nearly 60 years, with a budget said to be $160 million but possibly as much as $200 million, and a year-and-a-half of post-production that utilized extensive CGI technology to "de-age" the film's stars, allowing them to play their characters as younger men. In various stages of development since 2007, THE IRISHMAN is based on Charles Brandt's 2004 book I Heard You Paint Houses, which chronicled mid-level, Philly-based Irish mobster and labor union figure Frank Sheeran's post-WWII rise from truck driver to right-hand-man and trusted muscle of Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa. Years later, an elderly Sheeran (1920-2003) would claim to be directly involved as the reluctant trigger man in Hoffa's still-unsolved 1975 disappearance and certain murder. Sheeran's story remains speculative and with no body ever found, it isn't any more or less plausible than Hoffa being buried in the end zone of Giants Stadium, but THE IRISHMAN takes the Sheeran-Hoffa story and turns it into an often profoundly moving examination of friendship, regret, betrayal, guilt, and mortality. It's a film that Scorsese only could've made at this point in his life. THE IRISHMAN is the gangster genre seen through the eyes of life experience, a stark contrast with the brash cockiness of 1973's MEAN STREETS or 1990's mob-glorifying GOODFELLAS, arguably the most influential gangster movie ever made. In hindsight, CASINO's third act, where Ace Rothstein's Vegas dream collapses and everything goes to shit, definitely hints at things to come in THE IRISHMAN, but this latest film largely serves as Scorsese's UNFORGIVEN by way of that devastating deathbed monologue Jason Robards gives at the end of Paul Thomas Anderson's MAGNOLIA. The characters in the world of THE IRISHMAN aren't rich guys with a luxurious lifestyle. There's no glitz or glamour here. And whether they're whacked or somehow make it to old age, they all die alone.
"In the Still of the Night" and you'll be unconscious before Pacino even appears) and everything else that says "vintage Scorsese." He also includes shout-outs and callbacks not just to his earlier films but those of his stars. You'll spot the overwhelming remorse inherent to both Pacino's Michael Corleone, haunted throughout THE GODFATHER PART III after ordering his brother Fredo's death at the end of THE GODFATHER PART II, and De Niro's aging Noodles and the guilt over ratting on his friends in Sergio Leone's ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA. Hoffa's false sense of invincibility recalls Pacino's Tony Montana in Brian De Palma's SCARFACE and his doomed Carlito Brigante in De Palma's CARLITO'S WAY. There's even a fleeting appearance by Dave Ferrie (Louis Vanaria), the terribly-toupeed Lee Harvey Oswald acquaintance that Pesci played in Oliver Stone's JFK. It's also this stretch of the film where the CGI de-aging is most obvious, and while it plays better in motion on the screen than individual still shots would initially indicate, it doesn't always work (and even with all the digital trickery, there is nothing more distracting in THE IRISHMAN than Scorsese's inexplicable casting of rapper/chef Action Bronson as a casket salesman). Fortunately, the scenes with 76-year-old De Niro playing a 25-year-old Sheeran (with Pesci calling him "kid") are brief, and no matter how much the lines on his digitally-tweaked face are smoothed, he's still walking like a guy in his mid 70s. But once Sheeran hits his 40s and 50s, the effect is much less jarring and your eyes make the necessary adjustments, even if De Niro's eyes too often look like Johnny Depp's Whitey Bulger contact lenses from BLACK MASS. The de-aging of Pesci and Pacino is significantly less drastic since they aren't at any point required to portray themselves 50 years younger: 79-year-old Pacino plays Hoffa from his 40s to his death at 62, and 76-year-old Pesci plays Bufalino from his 40s to his death at 91.
HOFFA). Another complex performance comes from an unexpected source: as the soft-spoken Bufalino, the semi-retired Pesci, in just his third film appearance in 20 years, plays it subdued and totally against type, often as the voice of calm even when he's being ruthless and manipulative. It's a smart approach for a film that already has a bloviating Pacino, but by dialing down the "Funny how?" routine that defined his volatile performances in GOODFELLAS and CASINO, Pesci makes Bufalino even more subtly intimidating. That feeling is never more apparent than in his interactions with Sheeran's daughter Peggy (Lucy Gallina as a child, Anna Paquin as an adult), who is never receptive to "Uncle Russell"'s affections no matter how hard he tries. She knows what he and her father do for a living and lets them know it with her silence, and in his reactions, Bufalino is both angry and hurt. There's been some criticism leveled at Scorsese and screenwriter Steven Zaillian (SCHINDLER'S LIST, GANGS OF NEW YORK) for giving Peggy almost no dialogue, but that ends up being another example of film writers and bloggers missing the point to score woke cred--Peggy's silence and her withering glares are reminders of their criminal misdeeds. Bufalino is a cold, calculating, powerful mob boss who desperately wants Peggy's approval and will never have it, much like Sheeran will never be granted forgiveness after an adult Peggy can instantly see in her father's demeanor and his nervous drinking that he had something to do with Hoffa's disappearance. She can see it when the news breaks on TV, registering her disgust that it's been several days and he has yet to even call Hoffa's wife Jo (Welker White, so memorable as Lois in GOODFELLAS, refusing to go on Henry Hill's drug run without her lucky hat). When she finally spits out a terse "Why haven't you called her?," it cuts right through Sheeran.