Film Critic Harlan Jacobson Reviews Martin Scorsese's 'The Irishman'
DeNiro, Pesci, Keitel, Pacino. Old home week for the Mob in Martin Scorsese’s much awaited and acclaimed The Irishman, which had its debut at the NY Film Festival last month and is now in theatres.
Almost all of the great, old fashioned mafia men have reassembled for a reunion in Marty Scorsese’s The Irishman. It is the rage of the blogging world, sparking controversy for all the wrong reasons -- its gender inequality, as in why aren’t there more speaking parts for women? That truly is the wrong issue here. The Irishman’s American workplace values of self-made men is suffe. used with ethnic survivalism and given dark aristocracy to arrive at you are however many guys you can kill. As In that’s the way it was.
Based on former DA turned crime novelist Charles Brandt’s 2004 book, I Hear You Paint Houses, The Irishman centers on Frank Sheeran, a hit man who rose through the ranks of the Italian mob, became president of a Teamsters local, largely on the strength of his likability and his efficient manner of splattering inconvenient obstacles’ blood on the walls of their domiciles. Hence the house paint was always blood red.
I saw it with a friend of mine, a short guy who works as a wolf on wall street, who emerged from the very comfy Bow Tie theater in Stamford that boasts a big screen and Barcaloungers and said to me, ”Well I guess that’s the end of a genre.” Whoa, wait, that’s my turf. I’ve never said to him “Time to get short,” not simply because I don’t want to pander, but because I don’t presume to talk about his game at the game level.
But there it is, the end of a genre, end of a generation, the Scorsese generation that wrestled with the question of values, fraternity, ethnicity and the authentic reading of America. Completing the full arc of Scorsese and Coppola mobsters who traverse this landscape from young to now old, DeNiro narrates the story in flashback from a wheel chair in a nursing home as the lone surviving mob guy, Frank Sheeran, an Irisher. Joe Pesci returns from a 20-year golf game as mafia chief Russell Bufalino, Bobby Canavale plays a hood named Skinny Razor, Harvey Keitel inflates his cheeks like a blowfish as mobster Angelo Bruno (one in a series of rub outs here), Ray Romano plays a mob mouthpiece, and the cherry on the sundae, Al Pacino swings from his heels as Jimmy Hoffa — Hoffa who joined Amelia Earhart, Judge Crater, and DB Cooper as the four horse people of the apocalypse who went missing in the 20th Century.
As a kid growing up in the same geographic area as the mixed German Dutch-Irish American Hoffa, I remember him as having a flat, mostly thin Midwestern voice, a real tough guy kisser with wolf eyes and a chopped white temples, sideburn-less haircut. He looked fierce. As the drama unfolds, Pacino plays Hoffa increasingly as an Italian goombah out of earlier Scorsese films, speaking a sonorous Italian that Steve Zailian’s script pauses to note Hoffa picked up in the nabe. Here’s Pesci’s Russell Bufalino introducing the kid Irisher Sheeran to Hoffa over the phone, brought to the table by a waiter — the ultimate symbol of power in the 1950s.
That kid? Most of the time, as old Hoffa, Pacino plunges around the ring here like this is all requiem for Old Rocky. But the choice to have all these hall-of-famers play themselves as kids on the way up when they were young in the 1950s, aided by Benjamin Button style CGI cinema tricks to age them down, is more than disconcerting — it is derailing. But Al-Di-La, there’s somebody doing Jerry Vale songs in a supper club (odd there is no credit for a Jerry Vale character), and somebody else doing Don Rickles. I guess you had to be there. The Irishman is a reunion of actors I like—or have liked. While I agree with Scorsese’s much publicized remarks that Hollywood now makes theme park rides instead of films, The Irishman ironically felt like 3.5 house spent in Jurassic Park, watching the triceratops circle the legs of the tyrannosaurus rex, protected by the brontosaurus lawyer, while the baby condors -- Jesse Plemons as Hoffa’s son, Stephen Graham as Tony Pro Provenzano, Jack Huston as Bobby Kennedy in his sheriff days -- all buzz around the ears of the stumbling doomed.
In fact, the most real moments belonged a little too patly to the women actors in the film: briefly and first to Katharine Narducci, playing Pesci’s mob wife born into the job as mob royalty from Sicily, who says nothing and simply gets rid of his bloody clothes when he comes home late from a house painting job. And later, as a cliché of lost innocence, Anna Paquin, who plays Peggy, one of Sheeran’s grown children, who watches DeNiro as her dad, Frank, at Hoffa’s wake, and wordlessly conveys to him and to us, that she gets it. She finally gets who her father is, and what he does, and how he does it, and how he lives it. Aunt Kay from The Godfather could’ve told her that. God knows, she told us.
Does The Irishman solve the mystery of Jimmy Hoffa’s disappearance in 1975? Scorsese followed Zailian, who followed Brandt’s 2004 book, and filmed Brandt’s version of Hoffa’s hit and cremation. Myself, I like the myth that Hoffa ended up in Japanese steel for a Datsun. It’s a Scorsese, so the film is built with quality contributions: Robbie Robertson, Scorsese’s love man from The Band and The Last Waltz, scored the film, and ace Mexican cameraman Rodrigo Prieto (Brokeback Mt, Babel, Wolf of Wall St) did the camerawork, so it looks immaculate.
But that begs the what and why of The Irishman. To paraphrase Sir Edmund Hillary, and with thanks to Netflix, because Marty could. Is it better on a gargantuan screen in a Barcalounger? Sure. So’s life. Netflix prefers the streaming model. And I’ll watch it again on my reasonably-sized flatscreen at home. But I don’t think the film will substantially diminish from its well-crafted pointlessness. The takeaway: The Irishman comes out on Netflix Nov. 27. Until then, you probably have other turkeys to deep fry.
Click above to hear Harlan's review.