Synopsis: In the 1950s, truck driver Frank Sheeran gets involved with Russell Bufalino and his Pennsylvania crime family. As Sheeran climbs the ranks to become a top hit man, he also goes to work for Jimmy Hoffa — a powerful Teamster tied to organized crime.
Stars: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Bobby Cannavale, Jack Huston, Harvey Keitel, Ray Romano
Director: Martin Scorsese
Running Length: 210 minutes
Trailer Review: Here
TMMM Score: (9/10)
Review: In 2018, Netflix finally made it into the reputable big-time with Roma, the much-appreciated autobiographical film from Alfonso Cuarón that it debuted on its streaming service just weeks after giving it a small theatrical run to qualify for the Oscars. Nominated for 10 Academy Awards and very nearly counting Best Picture among the three trophies it took home on Oscar night, it was a sign that Netflix as a fully-fledged movie producer wasn’t a flash in the pan occurrence. Of course, by the time Roma was topping many critics best of the year awards, Netflix already had a contender for the Best Picture of 2019 with The Irishman, their much-anticipated collaboration with Martin Scorsese.
If it seems like we’ve been talking about The Irishman for over a year, you aren’t that far off the mark. Though making a movie with similar themes had long been on Scorsese’s dream project list, it wasn’t until Charles Brandt’s 2004 novel I Heard You Paint Houses was published that the framework of the production would start to solidify. Tapping Steven Zaillian (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) to write the script and securing a reunion with his long-time collaborator/star Robert De Niro, the hefty price tag of the movie became a cause of concern for most of the established studios even though Scorsese was a much-revered Hollywood icon. That’s when Netflix came into the mix and put up the money to give Scorsese carte blanche to make the movie he wanted to make, how he wanted to make it.
Though, Scorsese works fast, the overall production took its time. Even after filming was complete, a sizable portion of the budget and the final completion period was devoted to the special effects that would “de-age” stars De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci (among others) but Netflix was so confident in their prospects they ran an ad for the movie during the Oscar telecast. On paper, the Oscar winning roster in front of and behind the camera seemed like a slam dunk that would be hard to beat. Now, everyone wanted to know all these months later…would this be Scorsese’s masterpiece after the cool reception of 2016’s Silence and 2013’s successful but gratuitous The Wolf of Wall Street?
I have to tell you, I was worried about seeing The Irishman and not because I wasn’t confident that Scorsese would use his resources and cast like the wise filmmaker he has shown himself to be. No, it was that 210-minute running time (that’s nearly 3.5 hours if you don’t do math) that had me quaking in my boots. Though I was able to see the also-lengthy Roma in theaters where I could watch it uninterrupted, I’d have to see The Irishman outside of its theatrical presentation. I doubt this is where Scorsese would have wanted me to see it, but I figured it was an interesting experiment that would test my focus as well as get an idea of how most viewers would see this.
Fear of focus was unfounded, though, because Scorsese has given audiences a highly engaging film that takes place over several decades but doesn’t feel as long as it is. Yes, you may have read the first 2/3 of the movie are a tad meandering but the final act rewards those who have been patient and that’s not completely unfounded. Still, this is a movie dependent on building personal connection to the players and watching the way they move in their respective circles. It will definitely be a turn-off to those unprepared for the commitment and maybe they’d be better off watching the movie in segments, but I think the richer experience is letting Scorsese’s crime drama unfold at its intended pace even though it could have been slightly shorter – and this is coming from a critic routinely wishing movies were more expedient.
Bookended by a voice-over narration from Frank Sheeran (De Niro, Joy) and scenes showing his later life, the majority of The Irishman is told in flashback snippets while Sheeran and Russell Bufalino (Pesci, Home Alone) travel with their wives to a wedding of the daughter of Russell’s cousin Bill (Ray Romano, The Big Sick). We see a younger Sheeran (a de-aged De Niro…more on that later) go from being a Philadelphia truck driver to a trusted hitman for a top crime family and the effect it has on his own conscience as time moves on. Sheeran’s relationship as a bodyguard for union leader Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood) goes from being transactional to an actual friendship and Hoffa becomes a familiar face in the home of Sheeran and his family.
When Hoffa’s actions start to become divisive within the local teamsters and eventually the mob family he’s been kept secure by, it sets off a chain of events that will come back to haunt all involved. Hoffa has secrets on some dangerous people who don’t like to be intimidated by the rabble-rouser…and Hoffa’s infamous disappearance in 1975 should key you into the lengths they’d go to keep things under wraps. How Sheeran figures into Hoffa’s vanishing is where that key final hour of The Irishman comes in and by then we’ve been immersed in this world for so long that while the developments create tension they shouldn’t come as a surprise.
Also serving as a producer of the film, De Niro’s performance is such a welcome change of pace for the veteran actor. Though he’s lately been appearing in a questionable number of throwaway pictures, The Irishman helps reestablish why he’s one of the most respected people working in the business. He gives Sheeran a quiet reserve with a talent for remaining emotionless before, during, and after being involved with heinous crimes…yet you can tell he’s set to a low simmer on high alert at all times. This isn’t the typical De Niro we’ve come to expect and his reteaming with Scorsese (Cape Fear) is surely to thank for that.
It was big news when De Niro and Pacino teamed up for Heat in 1995 and less of an event for their stink-bomb Righteous Kill in 2008 yet here when they share the screen it’s like the first time we’ve seen these two performers spar. Sheeran and Hoffa had an obvious complicated relationship, with Sheeran unfortunately caught in the middle of his loyalty to his employers and his friendship with Hoffa. For his part, Pacino turns off his overzealous acting and gives Hoffa some dimension. There’s little of the wild-eyed Pacino that’s often on display and more of the determined pit bull Hoffa was known to be. By easing off the gas a bit, Pacino gets a bit of a redemption after appearing in a string of movies that are well beneath his experience level.
Supposedly it took Scorsese asking Pesci fifty times to play Russell Bufalino before the notoriously reclusive actor agreed to come out of semi-retirement for his old pal. However much prodding it took, it was absolutely worth whatever headaches he caused Scorsese in getting him signed. The Oscar winner was well-missed and his appearance here is reason enough to watch the film in one sitting. Though it may seem as if it’s a role Pesci can do in his sleep by this point, there’s some interesting nuances he brings that further helps to define Bufalino and not just make him a variation of the characters he’s played in Goodfellas or Casino. I was transfixed every time Pesci was onscreen and when you add De Niro and Pacino in as scene partners you sort of can’t believe the good fortune you have to watch these three at work.
So then we get to the whole “de-aging” process that took up so much time and I have to say that it’s largely a non-intrusive device. Had Scorsese opted for casting different actors when the characters were younger, I’m not sure if they film would have been as successful in carrying over these dynamics to their older counterparts. On the other hand, we all know what De Niro, Pacino, and Pesci looked like over the decades they’ve been in the business and the way they’ve been “youthfulized” doesn’t quite convince in every frame. It’s good but not great, and very likely worth the money it cost in the long run since you have consistency in actors throughout the time periods.
There are many film fans out there that think Scorsese’s 1990 Goodfellas is the be-all, end-all as far as mafia movies go and it’s hard to make an argument against the brilliance of storytelling in that feature. The Irishman is successful in many of the same ways but doesn’t quite get to that Goodfellas level due to its tendency to overreach and linger when it should be continuing onward. Even though the film is highly watchable I can’t help but think some slight trimming could have made it an even better lasting film. Those first two hours perhaps contain scenes that don’t belong, even if they ultimately provide more insight into Sheeran’s rise to his position.
Aside from the extended length, there have been complaints over the lack of female characters and it’s an interesting conversation to have. The women that are featured in the film are often without much dimension and, aside from a sinister scene involving Russell’s wife, fail to have any major impact on the overall story. The most successful actress is actually the one that most people are so up in arms about. As Sheeran’s daughter, the amount of lines Anna Paquin (The Good Dinosaur) has could be counted on two hands but her silence is almost the point Scorsese was trying to make. Her father has proved untrustworthy for so long, her lack of communication with him speaks to the depth of her resolve to not reward him with her love or kindness.
Now that The Irishman is out in the world and people can choose the way they want to watch it, it will be interesting to see how the movie ages over the years. Going into Oscar nominations in a few weeks, it’s expected to come out with the most nominations and I’m not counting on that very real possibility. For once, the effort is worth the accolades and the good notices are supported by an excellent film. And Pesci…for goodness sake, how can you be unhappy when Pesci is onscreen?