Friday (November 1st) afternoon I made an excited, nervous journey to the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood to see The Irishman. Why excited? Martin Scorsese is my all-time favorite director, and my three favorite films of his are Goodfellas, Raging Bull, and Casino (I’ll mention my fourth later). All three of those movies star Robert Deniro and Joe Pesci at their best. Both are Oscar-worthy, legendary, and iconic in all three films, and now they’ve brought (literally) the gang back together and thrown in Al Pacino, as James Riddell Hoffa no less, to boot. Not only is that everything I dream of (almost, I’d kill to see Benicio Del Toro in a Scorsese movie), the film is 3.5 hours long. I hadn’t been this excited to see a movie in years. Inherent Vice, Gangs of New York, Jackie Brown, Batman Returns, those are movies I got hyped to see like The Irishman. Why was I nervous? Well, what if it sucked? There was a good reason to expect disappointment and not just from high expectations based on the previous quality of collaboration. I think The Wolf of Wall Street (my fourth favorite Scorsese), and to a lesser extent The Departed have really propped up the estimation of Scorsese’s post Gangs of New York output, DeNiro and Pacino have done lots of movies clearly for financial reasons over the last twenty years, and Pesci hasn’t been in a movie in almost ten years (he was pretty much retired before Love Ranch, which he was great in). I had and still have a lot of reservations about the veracity of the film’s subject, Frank Sheeran,’s amazing confession to involvement in or committing several of the most famous unsolved murders of the twentieth century. Sheeran paints himself as a real life Forrest Gump or Edward Wilson, the composite CIA agent from The Good Shepherd. The story is so fantastical it reminds of another mafia film, The Iceman, that was debunked before it was even made, and as credulous as its filmmakers found The Iceman, that’s how credulous these filmmakers turn out to be of the Irishman. Okay, whether or not it’s half-truths and bull shit, was it any good?
Hell yes, it’s good. It’s great. It’s awesome. It has all of the signature whoa shots, cool cuts, brutal violence, little details, and humor I wanted and craved. There’s a long rise of Sheeran as a gangster sequence that is juiced Scorsese nirvana. There’s a scene of reaction to the Kennedy assassination that was the most moving I’ve seen, and it’s followed by one of the coldest, toughest, funniest bits in the picture. It’s the best movie I’ve seen in 2019, and it will be very difficult to top. Scorsese wins, and those actors I was nervous about win big too.
Sheeran is top-flight DeNiro. He’s playing another psychopath, but this one ticks differently than ones he’s played before, and he performs so consistently through so many scenes and ages, it’s really a wonder. If you’re worried about the de-aging effects being convincing, I’d say they didn’t distract me one bit, but what did distract me was the fake blue eyes DeNiro sported. I never quite got used to them. DeNiro is at full DeNiro and very much at the fore. The second lead, even though I’d guess he didn’t pop up until an hour into the movie, Al Pacino has the kind of role he’s only really gotten on the stage and HBO in his latter years, rich and complicated with a lot of notes, and of course showy. He devours it and everything else he can get his hands on, but it’s delicious to watch. Gold. I’d put Al Pacino as the performance Oscar favorite for the film, but for me, the best, and just a treasure, was Joe Pesci. I’m so glad he came out of retirement. He is so natural, so alive in every moment he’s on-screen in The
Irishman that I was in awe. It’s a different character, far less of a live-wire than Pesci has played in past Scorsese roles, but no less magnetic. He brings everything to silent reaction shots. I wanted to hug everyone involved with the production for conspiring to bring Joe Pesci to my eyes and ears. Now, if you’ve followed the movie’s development or promotion, you know it has a supporting cast to salivate over too, especially because it includes one Harvey Keitel. Here’s where I give you my quibbles with the movie.
The “other” exciting famous names in the cast (Keitel, Anna Paquin, Bobby Cannavale) don’t get a lot of screentime, and their roles just aren’t as memorable as Jordan Bell’s crew in Wolf of Wall Street or Paul Sorvino in Goodfellas. This isn’t a complaint about the performances; they’re all great in, and they do get good bits. Keitel has at least one great scene, but for such a long movie, it is extremely dominated by the three leads. The fourth, fifth, and sixth leads might be Stephen Graham as a thorn in Hoffa’s side, shockingly Welker White (Lois, the coke smuggling babysitter from Goodfellas) as Hoffa’s wife, and Jesse Plemons as Hoffa’s son. The non-Pesci Deniro gangster character you’ll likely remember most is a guy named Sally Bugs played by Louis Cancelmi. He’s fun, and the gangster action swings, but half of this movie is a henchman’s eye view of the slow fall of Jimmy Hoffa. As a Hoffa biopic it works (and doesn’t compare unfavorably with Danny DeVito’s woefully under-watched “Hoffa” starring Jack Nicholson; Sheeran reminded me a bit of DeVito’s fictional teamster lackey), but after seeing so many brutal murders in the beginning of the film, big-time union and political maneuvers and dirty tricks almost felt like a let down of stakes. Then, when the movie shifts back to being more mob heavy, it decides to do an interesting thing. It slows to a crawl.
The final third or so of the movie is a granular, meditative, somewhat repetitive (it felt particularly so because Hoffa’s downfall mirrors Ace Rosthein’s in Casino in a major way; it even has a scene from Casino in triplicate) dramatization, most of which I went into the movie having guessed the outcome of. If I went in with no knowledge of Hoffa or “Casino,” I may have felt differently. It’s all well done. The movie will likely play better at home where you can break it up, but at 3.5 hours sans intermission to make the last third so meticulous felt perverse. It may be that I just don’t have the attention span, but I was itching for the movie to end. It was too long for me to sit in a theater for sure. This is not as slam-bang, constantly on the go as Wolf of Wall Street. There is almost no rock and or roll on the sound track, the characters are not on drugs other than alcohol, and they become old men (the elderly stuff is wonderfully realized) as the runtime runs on and on. It’s also not as great in my estimation as Wolf of Wall Street.
Don’t get me wrong, the film is great. I can’t wait to see it again and again at home. Hell, I already told a buddy if he really wants to go see it at the theater I’ll see it again with him. I haven’t told you about so many things. You can play a game of spotting events and characters from 90’s movies (callbacks to both Goodfellas and Casino). It’s an instant classic. Enjoy good things. They are not assured.
Martin Scorsese's "The Irishman" will be available streaming on Netflix on November 27th and is playing in select theaters.
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