Last year, when Netflix released the masterful film Roma, it was clear they were wanting the Academy to take them seriously. While it did win a good amount of awards (including Best Director), it did lose the big one, Best Picture, to Green Book (a film that, while charming at first, may be destined to be forgotten as time goes on). Much of this had to do with voters not liking the fact that a movie on a streaming service would win the night’s biggest honor, hoping instead for the winner to be one that was released theatrically.
Somewhat ironically, during the same Oscar telecast, we got the first (and very brief) teaser trailer for Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, the film I personally have waited for all year. Along with Scoresese, names like De Niro, Pacino, Pesci, and Keitel filled the screen.
With Roma, Netflix was clearly swinging for the fences. With The Irishman, they are swinging for the parking lot past the outfield bleachers, which, bluntly put, is the result we get.
I admit that it takes me more than a viewing or two to totally understand even the best of mafia themed films, but I will do my best. The film tells the story of a real life mob hitman named Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro, in his first Scorsese film in almost a quarter century). Towards the end of his life, we hear him narrate as he recalls making his way through the mob with the Buffalino Family, after encountering Russell Buffalino (Joe Pesci), Frank’s new employer who reports to the big boss Angelo (Harvey Keitel). Eventually, they make there connections with helping the infamous union leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), the man now most famous for his mysterious disappearance.
There are others in the cast who fill their roles with uncanny professionalism, as we see actors like Jesse Plemons and Bobby Cannavale. Though the film is indeed a male dominated one, Anna Paquin does some of her best work in years as Peggy, one of Frank’s grown up daughters. Still, I was most delighted and surprised to see Ray Romano as Russell’s cousin who acts as Hoffa’s main attorney. I have always loved Romano ever since I saw Everybody Loves Raymond as a kid, but it never crossed my mind that he would be cast a lawyer in a Scorsese crime drama, much less be as good as he is.
The normal themes of Scorsese films are present. I am not just talking about the swearing and the violence. The master film maker has indeed been vocal about being influenced by his cathlocism, which is evident in his films (at least the ones I have seen). The thought of having one’s occupation take priority over one’s morality. The idea of characters feeling utter remorse after the act of sinning, and seeking forgiveness afterwards (similar to Raging Bull and Goodfellas).
Though The Irishman does stand as its own achievement, it probably has more in common with Goodfellas than any other Scorsese film. Both are about two separate men rising in the mob world, only to enter that aforementioned remorse at the end. Goodfellas did dive more into the “family” aspect of the mafia, as well as it being more biographical than The Irishman (which centers more on a part of life than the whole life).
Parents, there is no beating around the bush: the film is rated R for good reason. Even if there is no hint of sexual content (despite one or two times characters kiss), it is more than compensated for with the swearing and graphic violence.
It is not much of a surprise that the 2010s have not been the best of decades for either Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, or Joe Pesci (mainly since Pesci came out of retirement to do this film), at least when compared to past decades. That said, it is easy to say that it is the best any of them have been in years. Much of that credit should also be given to the film’s screenwriter, Oscar winner Steve Zallian (Schindler’s List, American Gangster, Moneyball).
We get a much more subtle De Niro than we are used to, but that does not make him any less affective. It is a little strange seeing Pesci being the authoritative figure to De Niro, but Pesci is just as brilliant even if he is not as bulldog crazy as he was in Goodfellas. The one with the most to do is Pacino. To me, Pacino has always been the only actor who you can always hear even if you put the mute button on. Here, he is not overacting because he chooses to, but because we sense that is how the character would be.
The three main lead actors are in their mid to late 70s, yet the special effects mixed with the superior acting makes us not think of anything but the story. The only flaw with the film (and it is as minor a flaw as can be) is that some moments do show the actor’s age (they can make the face look younger, but certain body movements do seem a lot slower for that young age).
One thing I have not yet mentioned is the runtime, which stands at nearly 3 ½ hours. Yes, that is a long time, but I assure you not one second of that is wasted. If the film seems slow, it is because it is patient in the storytelling (most notably in the last hour when we see Hoffa’s outcome. Nothing is on screen that does not need to be.
The Irishman clearly marked all of my expectations, and then some.