Pedigree. Patience. Photography. These are some of the reasons my critical brethren have been vomiting praise on The Irishman. I love this movie, but I’ll manage to keep my lunch down.
The Gang’s All Here
With any other actors and director, this movie would be a bloated, plodding mob movie nobody asked for. But with Martin Scorsese directing an A-List, All-Star cast of Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, he doesn’t just thread the needle, he weaves a masterpiece. This is a cast so strong that Ray Romano as the mob lawyer looks like a rookie.
Scorsese, Pesci, and De Niro have a great history together in the genre. And if my Campari-clouded memory serves, Pacino’s been in a couple mob movies as well.
However, if you’re expecting an updated version of Casino or Goodfellas, you are about to waste three and a half hours (yes, that’s right. More on the length in a bit).
De Niro leads the cast as Frank Sheeran, a truck driver who sells off some of his inventory for personal profit. Pesci plays Russell Bufalino, the mobster who spots Frank’s potential as a cold blooded-yet-loyal killer. Rounding out the top of the billings is Pacino as the eccentric and stubborn Jimmy Hoffa.
Each inhabits their role completely. Given their
age veteran status, it’s highly unlikely we will ever get this combination of quality and personality on the big screen again. I savored every moment that De Niro and Pacino shared the screen. Yes, their characters, but also the men. Two titans of their profession finally getting extended, quality screen time together. It is compelling for reasons that extend beyond this particular story.
There’s no chance for a sequel, though I wouldn’t mind a deeper dive into Romano’s attorney character, Bill Bufalino.
The Irishman is long. As I mentioned, it clocks in at three and a half hours. The movie is told in flashback by a nursing home-bound Frank, who is telling his story to a faceless person. He begins at the beginning, and omits very little in between. Scorsese is methodical in the mundane. There is an avalanche of tedious details but the movie still manages to avoid a state of tedium. Mapping out the route of a road trip to the audience sticks out. Could we (and the movie) have lived without this? Most certainly. But it adds to the overall richness of the film.
Unlike in Casino and Goodfellas, there isn’t a lot of mob glamour. These are working stiffs. Their work is felonious to be sure, but work nonetheless. Scorsese consciously imbues them with a an aura of ordinary. And in doing this, allowing the unimportant to breathe, it all becomes important. Not in and of itself, but as a part of an amazing whole.
He also uses long, unbroken shots to establish the pace. Much like in the Copacabana in Goodfellas, a shot is used to find our aging narrator in his nursing home. He tells a story within a story, that of the well-mapped out road trip and its preordained tragic end.
Also like in Casino, the soundtrack is used to establish when the story is taking place (it happens over several decades). But the soundtrack isn’t as catchy or hip. That’s fine, because given that Frank was merely big-player-adjacent, giving the film a singalong soundtrack could have made him out to be a mobster version of Forrest Gump.
And after Steven Spielberg’s get-off-my-lawn rant against streaming movies earlier this year, The Irishman is also a perfect film for Netflix. This movie would never survive in theaters. With trailers before and cleaning time after, this could only show three times per screen per day. Compare that with Frozen 2, which could be shown five times. That’s more people to sell $7 sodas and $8 popcorn.
A few weeks ago, Scorsese took a shot at Marvel movies, saying they weren’t cinema. Clearly he didn’t mean runtime. He looked at Avengers: End Game (three hours, two minutes) and said ‘hold my $7 soda.’
The Critic’s Cocktail Recommendation
I could be snarky and suggest a rum and $7 coke! But I’ll pour a glass of Campari. Sure it’s bitter beginning to end, but like The Irishman, it’s worth it. But I’m keeping the rum within reach!