Netflix and Scorsese's The Irishman (***1/2) – Charge with a gun; with a knife you run away

The Irishman – 2019

Director Martin Scorsese
Screenplay Steven Zaillian based on the book I Hear You Paint Houses by Charles Brandt
Starring Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro, Joe Pesci, Harvey Keitel, Ray Romano, Bobby Cannavale, Anna Paquin, Jessie Plemons, Jack Huston, Stephen Graham, Gary Basabara

The Irishman is the latest in a series of films by Martin Scorsese that follow a theme of those who have their own set of rules outside of those by us regular schmucks. The process is quite familiar to anyone who has seen Casino, The Wolf of Wall Street and the pinnacle, Goodfellas. Sometimes the results are fantastic and sometimes they are not so much. This time, it’s somewhere between.

The movie has been the subject of wondrous speculation. Imagining Pacino joining Scorsese’s ballyhooed mafia cast members made critics salivate to the point that the review for the film started writing itself. In the grand scheme of things, it can boil down to whether or not one likes the formula of these Scorsese films. If you do, you’d like this film for sure.

For me, when it comes to the number of times a director repeats a theme, there has to be analysis on whether or not the director is breaking new ground or if they are treading. The Irishman has a feeling of fatigue lacking from his previous efforts. Many critics have attributed this to a sort of remorse on reflection of one’s career, in the same manner that we have seen Eastwood in Unforgiven. The difference is, Eastwood’s film plays like a magnum opus with a direct point to be made. Scorsese’s film feels like the lesson learned is one can stick around too long. More than outliving one’s usefulness, you are just a remainder of a time your descendants never even heard about.

DeNiro is Frank Sheeran, a mob hit man whose profession is described as “Painting Houses” for first Russell Bufalino (Pesci) and then Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino). The earliest we see DeNiro, he’s called “Young Man” by Bufalino, but he’s already well into middle age. For as much talk as we heard about the de-aging process, it doesn’t seem like the range is that vast because the actors move like old men. DeNiro never looks under the age of 60, even though he’s supposed to be in his thirties when he meets Bufalino. It is unique, to say the least, seeing him with blue eyes.

As Bufalino, Pesci has less ground to cover comparative to his actual age. He’s the best thing in the film, though. Perhaps it’s because absence has made him loom larger in the heart, or it’s because he’s the single most compatible actor with Scorsese’s directing style. The film is worth watching for his scenes alone.

Pacino is allowed room to bluster as Jimmy Hoffa. He’s doing things that are familiar to the viewer, but it fortunately stays within the lane of what the public pictures of the teamster boss. He has some delightful off-kilter moments, epitomized in the title of this review. One of the film’s best attributes is that we get to see the rest of the story about Hoffa from a source who likely knows.

The biggest weakness of the film is DeNiro’s portrayal of Sheridan. He’s not conceivable as someone in his 30’s through his 50’s. He looks old and infirm, yet we’re supposed to believe he’s some sort of heavy. The effect is so diminished, it is a surprise when one of Hoffa’s men describes the effect that Sheridan has when men see him walking down the street. I had to play it again just to be sure they were talking about the same person. If the character had not described it, nothing in Scorsese’s film convinces the viewer we’re seeing anything more than a geezer. Another actor maybe half DeNiro’s 76 years might have helped bring the viewer into Sheeran’s life.

Much has been made about the lack of dialogue from Anna Paquin’s Peggy Sheeran’s character. This is foolish #metoo bullcrap that can’t have been propagated by anyone who saw the film. It is through her eyes, both as a child (Lucy Gallina) and an adult that we are allowed to pass judgement to her father’s idea of protection. The person is absolutely silent, and rightfully so: we need her eyes to help tell the whole story.

The biggest challenge for this viewer is when it comes to true crime sagas, Scorese peaked with Goodfellas and he’s never really come close since. That movie is a perfect representation and the rest of the films of this genre feel like something of an attempt to replicate rather than tell someone else’s story. That’s a hard thing to do when each of these films are actually based on different people. They feel like the same person on the same journey.

If not for movies like Hugo, The Aviator, The Departed and Silence, one might think Scorsese peaked decades ago. He can call this his last crime biography or he can make 5 more. He never will strike that original chord again.

This is a small complaint. Scorsese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker are always able to entertain with this crew of acting talent. The movie doesn’t feel as long as it should. It is a comfortable path that is worn through repetition, like air to the lungs or blood through the veins. It will contend for some Oscars this year, but it’s less likely to win any since each of the players have done better work elsewhere.

(***1/2 out of *****)

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