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In Theaters/On Netflix: THE IRISHMAN (2019)

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THE IRISHMAN
(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.






Running just two minutes shy of three-and-a-half hours, THE IRISHMAN opens with an 83-year-old, wheelchair-bound Sheeran (De Niro) in an assisted living facility, breaking the fourth wall to tell his story. He uses the framing device of a flashback to a 1975 weekend where he and his wife Irene (Stephanie Kurtzuba) are traveling with Sheeran's longtime friend Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and his wife Carrie (Kathrine Narducci) to a wedding in Detroit. The trip--mapped out in great detail by Sheeran and prolonged by the wives' frequent smoke breaks since Russell doesn't allow smoking in his car--takes them across Pennsylvania to Toledo and north to Detroit, and along the way, Sheeran spots the very location where he first met Russell 30 years earlier, when his truck broke down and Russell was a good samaritan stranger who helped him fix it (this means THE IRISHMAN is set up as flashbacks-within-flashbacks, and at one point, by my count, Scorsese goes four flashbacks deep as Sheeran recalls an incident killing some German officers in Italy during WWII). After the war, Sheeran found employment as a truck driver and got involved in some minor skimming and side deals involving some steaks with mob bosses on his route, including Frank "Skinny Razor" DiTullio (Bobby Cannavale), an underboss with powerful Philly capo Angelo Bruno (Harvey Keitel). When Frank gets busted by a supplier for a missing shipment, he's successfully defended by lawyer Bill Bufalino (Ray Romano), who introduces him to his mob boss cousin Russell--small world--the very man who helped him out a couple of months earlier. Sheeran starts working for Russell as a bagman and hit man, which eventually brings him into the orbit of Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), the controversial head of the Teamsters, who has connections with Bufalino crime family and likes that Sheeran is one of his own in the Teamsters brotherhood.


What follows is a labyrinthine saga involving labor unions, the FBI, the CIA, Castro, JFK, Richard Nixon, E. Howard Hunt, Watergate, and everything in between. Hoffa becomes a target of JFK's brother and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy (Jack Huston) and refuses to lower the Teamsters' building's flag to half-staff following JFK's assassination. Hoffa is eventually convicted of jury tampering and goes on a scorched earth campaign against Teamsters rivals Frank Fitzsimmons (Gary Basaraba) and Anthony "Tony Pro" Provenzano (Stephen Graham). Once he's released and given a Presidential pardon by Nixon in 1971, Hoffa, with Sheeran at his side, attempts to regain control of the Teamsters, which seals his fate with both the union and their mob partners. By 1975, it's decided by the powers that be that Hoffa, who confidently boasts to Sheeran that he's untouchable ("I know things they don't know I know!"), is a problem that needs to go away.


For its first hour or so before the Hoffa plot kicks into gear, THE IRISHMAN feels like a Scorsese victory lap of sorts, a greatest hits package with a "Hey, the band's back together!" vibe with a familiarity that's predictable yet welcome. There's the rapid-fire editing (Thelma Schoonmaker still the best in the business), the voiceovers, the music (drink every time you hear The Five Satins' "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.


THE IRISHMAN probably doesn't need to run 208 minutes, but with Scorsese and this cast, it's not exactly wasted time (one wishes Keitel had more to do, though he does get one great scene reminding a young Sheeran that he fucked up and Bufalino basically saved his life). It's such pure cinematic joy seeing De Niro, Pacino (his first time working with Scorsese), and Pesci inspired and doing their best work in years that they're instantly forgiven for the likes of DIRTY GRANDPA, HANGMAN, and 8 HEADS IN A DUFFEL BAG. De Niro carries the emotional weight and is in nearly every scene, and Pacino does his shouty Pacino thing but keeps it in check and accurate to the character (and he's a more credible Hoffa than the prosthetic nose attached to the face of Jack Nicholson in 1992's 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.






THE IRISHMAN is always compelling, but it's a slower and more meditative piece than GOODFELLAS or CASINO. In many ways, it can be seen as a spiritual relative to De Niro's own 2006 directing effort THE GOOD SHEPHERD, though it's not somber and serious all the time (there's a great running gag where each new gangster character is introduced with a caption detailing when and how he was eventually killed). It really becomes something special in the last half hour when age, time and guilt take their toll on Sheeran. This home stretch packs an emotional wallop and helps put a lot of what's happened over the preceding three hours into perspective. And it's that perspective that a younger Scorsese wouldn't have had the life experience to create circa MEAN STREETS or GOODFELLAS. Ranging in age from 76 to 80, Scorsese, De Niro, Pacino, Pesci, and Keitel all appear to be well and with hopefully much more to give (even though this feels like the perfect career capper for all the major players), but at the same time, there's the inevitable. They're still here but these are their autumnal years. They could've done a convincing job of acting that in their younger days, but their advancing ages and their own sense of mortality give THE IRISHMAN a poignancy and an added resonance--for them and for the fans who have followed them over the decades--that just isn't there in any of their past gangster films.




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