There’s a sea change going on in Hollywood right now, and director Martin Scorsese is at the center. Every year, there’s an increase of films that hit streaming platforms in lieu of a theatrical release, and Netflix is naturally the industry leader of this trend. So when we see Martin Scorsese railing at Disney and superhero films for freezing out more “traditional” films, it seems like we’re watching an industry at a crossroads. What makes it even more surreal is when Scorsese bemoans the changing tides of the theater system while promoting his latest 3 hour epic, with a preposterous $160 million budget, that will be primarily seen on the world’s leading streaming platform. This is all perhaps more poetic and more tragic than the story at the center of The Irishman itself.
But it’s a story that feels right at home in the Scorsese canon. The Irishman is possibly the swan song for Scorsese’s remarkable run within the confines of mythical gangster glorification. It is also the director’s longest film ever, clocking in at an astonishing 3 hours and 29 minutes, as if Scorsese took this opportunity to make every last statement he wanted to say about the gangster genre. But is that runtime used to its maximum effect? Well, for a film like The Godfather Part II (1974), a 3.5 hour runtime flies by because the characters and dilemmas are so mesmerizing, haunting, and revealing. For The Irishman, it’s more like watching Michael Jordan with the Wizards as he chucks up 35 shots. Yeah, you’re great in moments and spurts, but I feel like there’s a more efficient game you could be playing here, Mike.
Based on the novel I Heard You Paint Houses (a euphemism for carrying out a hit), the film consists partially of true events, and partially on the (often disputed) word of union worker and mafia hitman Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro). We’re introduced to Sheeran as a lowly truck driver, hauling beef in Pennsylvania. Through some chance encounters, Sheeran ends up rubbing elbows with a sleugh of crime lords, most notably Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci). Sheeran enthusiastically offers a portion of his steak hauls to his new associates, stealing from his employer, before ingratiating himself into the Bufalino crime family.
But as Sheeran completes mob hits and narrowly avoids conviction in court, what soon takes center stage is his relationship with Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). Hoffa is the union head of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, but his political ambitions belie his shady dealings with the Bufalino family. Through paranoia of his own position in the criminal circuit, a desperate Hoffa ends up pissing off various crime lords, leading to a power struggle that sees Sheeran unexpectedly at the center.
The issue at play here is that it’s a one-sided, “he said, he said” story. There’s been much controversy and debunked theories on whether or not Sheeran’s version of events are true. However, I’m almost willing to believe him for one sole reason – his version of events are so damn tame that they must be true. If I ever get a chance to tell about my hypothetical life in the mafia, and no one is likely to dispute it, rest assured I’m going to cook up some insane tales.
Scorsese is an expert in the unofficial genre of “men behaving badly,” especially when those men have to reflect on their past sins. But The Irishman is lacking in quite a few areas in comparison to some of the director’s best. For starters, the choice to devote so much attention to Hoffa’s feud with the mob just isn’t very interesting due to how repetitive it is. Sheeran tries to get Hoffa to reel in his antics, Hoffa is belligerent. Wash, rinse, repeat. In other crime dramas of this ilk, the talking always progressed the plot. Here, it seems like we’re going in circles. One of the film’s goals is to get viewers to feel the passage of time within the lives of these men. But the passage of time isn’t being felt rather than it’s been exacted upon the audience with force. As a result, the film doesn’t match the frenetic energy of Goodfellas or Casino.
Instead, it’s a slow burn starring marginally interesting characters. De Niro probably has one expression during the entire film. Pesci is much better than his co-star, but it will hardly go into the catalog of his best performances. Meanwhile, Pacino’s performance has been polarizing, with some asserting that he’s chewing too much scenery. To those people, I say: have you seen his filmography? This is him just getting out of bed. Even so, despite his best efforts, his scenes lack any dramatic energy, much like the film itself. The Irishman seems to be too content that it exists to ever do anything interesting.
Which is disappointing because there are interesting story threads here that are left hanging. For one, Sheeran’s daughter Peggy (Lucy Gallina, Anna Paquin) is intimidated by Russell, but opens up to Jimmy Hoffa. Peggy, intentionally or not, is a stand in for the public’s relationship to and perception of crime. Men like Russell are villainized, but men like Jimmy are celebrated despite engaging with the underbelly of crime. It’s all about branding and packaging – Jimmy Hoffa is popular because he LOOKS like an upstanding, admirable politician despite the seedy dealings underneath the surface. Perhaps the fact that this story was told from Sheeran’s perspective makes it difficult to delve deeper into Hoffa’s influence. But it would have been interesting to see more inspection on the effect men like that have in society.
But perhaps the most disappointing aspect of The Irishman is how it looks. This was telegraphed in the marketing campaign; the poster for the film looks like one of those Blu-ray covers for old/classic films where they got a little nuts with the Photoshop. The de-aging technology was heavily publicized, but it comes at the expense of the cinematography. The lighting in many scenes looks absolutely ridiculous; a Scorsese film should never look like a Dos Equis commercial. In addition, there are scenes with blatantly obvious and distracting green screen. And to what gain are all these effects? It’s not like our starring trio looks considerably younger. Pesci, in particular, was done dirty. He looks to be the same age no matter the era. If I were his agent, I’d be pissed.
These warts go a long way to bring the film down, but there’s still much to enjoy. Scorsese can still put together a thrilling sequence, as evidenced by the film’s many slow-motion expressions of violence. There’s a particularly tense scene involving the turning of an ignition. When Scorsese taps into those inner instincts, the film shines. But those moments are rare amidst the barrage of sequences that go on way too long. At times, the movie feels like one long, neverending montage.
As many complaints as there have been for how bloated The Irishman is, we do know that the bloat comes from Scorsese’s love of the medium. Part of the fun is acknowledging the reverence the film has towards other gangster films. Like when Jimmy Hoffa sits on a lawn chair in front of a lake, reminiscent of Michael Corleone’s lake house in The Godfather Part II. At one point, there’s a scene reminiscent of Sonny’s street fight in The Godfather (1972). But this time, it’s a nearly decrepid De Niro struggling to kick a guy’s ass. Which has to be a new level of embarrassment. It’s one thing to get your ass kicked in broad daylight. But it’s even worse when the guy kicking your ass is struggling to kick your ass because he’s so old, but he’s still SUCCEEDING at kicking your ass. But the film is at least aware of how ridiculous De Niro’s age is. That’s part of the point; in one scene, while detailing how to execute a murder, De Niro makes mention that he has to make sure he goes to the bathroom before leaving his home.
This movie is largely about how unsexy this incarnation of the mafia is. It sheds the glorification of past gangster films, focusing solely on the unpleasantness of it all. Perhaps that’s a new type of enlightenment for the genre; admonishing the lifestyle by showing how lame it is to see a group of men plan their next hit in the same breath as their order for the early bird special. It’s an interesting message, to not waste one’s life. I just wish the ride to get there was a lot smoother.