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Eleanor Ringel Cater

‘The Irishman’ – director Martin Scorsese’s latest film not his best

A movie poster of "The Irishman"

By Eleanor Ringel Cater

Maybe I’m all Martin Scorsese’d out.

After all, I’ve been watching his movies for almost half a century.

But “The Irishman,” which I’d hoped would be his piece de resistance, his final say on what he had to say about the gangster genre that, with few exceptions, he pretty much owns, didn’t do it for me.

Rather, it only reminded me of other, better moments in his earlier, better films. Especially “Mean Streets,” “Casino” and “Goodfellas.”

A movie poster of “The Irishman”

The movie is based on Charles Brandt’s book, “I Heard You Paint Houses,” which is wonderfully innocuous Mob code for, “I understand you whack people.”  The “painting houses” is the blood on the walls and floor that such jobs typically leave behind.

“The Irishman’ begins with a long slow pan that echoes the far more glamorous through-the-back-door nightclub entrance in “Goodfellas.” Only this time, Scorsese is taking us through a slightly rundown nursing home to meet elderly former hitman Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), who claims to be the guy who killed Jimmy Hoffa, the high-flying Teamster president who went missing in 1975 and was finally declared dead in 1982. (Side note: his body was never found).

Before he was, well, married to the Mob, Sheeran was a former G.I. who drove a delivery truck. Sometime in the mid-50s, he meets Russell Bufalino who helps him with a bad carburetor (or something like that). But Bufalino is more than a nice-guy mechanic. He’s the boss of small but consequential crime family that pretty much runs Northern Pennsylvania.

And that, Sheeran explains, is how he met “what was going to be the rest of my life.”

Eventually, Bufalino introduces him to Hoffa (Al Pacino) who takes a shine to Sheeran. He makes him his buddy and sometime bodyguard. And Scorsese uses their relationship as a way to examine how things worked in the second half of the 20thcentury – at least, that is, in the Gospel According to the Mafia.

Is it the truth or a string of colorful tall tales? It doesn’t really matter. What does matter is how Scorsese and his regulars approach this familiar territory. How, when the movie is working, they invest it with a cruel poignancy and dark humor. How, when it’s not, we’re left with a watered-down Greatest Hits from the director’s other movies.

A scene from “The Irishman”

Two aspects of “The Irishman” have attracted a lot of attention even if, strictly speaking, they aren’t essential to its overall effectiveness. One is the Netflix kerfuffle. Netflix paid for the movie (a reported $160 million) and after a brief run in theaters, the picture will be available on Netflix on November 27. This has caused some consternation.

So, too, has Scorsese’s decision to digitally de-age his leads. It doesn’t really work, but it doesn’t stop the film cold, either – though you may experience some “Polar Express” PTSD.

Pesci, who came out of retirement to do the movie, is easily the best thing in “The Irishman.” We expect the peppery, near-lunatic energy he brought to Goodfellas” and “My Cousin Vinny.” Instead, his mobster is a menacing yet essentially benign presence. And you realize, in retrospect, how much of the heavy lifting Pesci did in their earlier movies (toss in “Raging Bull,” too). His explosiveness gave De Niro breathing room for his particular off-center mannerisms. Here, the chemistry is off.

Of course, even second-rate Scorsese is still worth your attention, especially if you’re an acolyte. A certain melancholy hangs over the movie that somehow slides over into a respectful melancholy for all these excellent artists nearing the end of their careers.

But truth be told, by the end of three-and-a-half hours, I still didn’t care who killed Jimmy Hoffa.

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Eleanor Ringel

Eleanor Ringel, Movie Critic, was the film critic for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for almost 30 years. She was nominated multiple times for a Pulitzer Prize. She won the Best of Cox Critic, IMAGE Film & Video and Women In Film awards. An Atlanta native, she graduated from Westminster and Brown University. She was the critic on WXIA’s Noonday, a member of Entertainment Weekly's Critics Grid and wrote TV Guide’s movie/DVD. She is member of the National Society of Film Critics and currently talks about movies on WMLB and writes the Time Out column for the Atlanta Business Chronicle.

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3 Comments

  1. Steve Barr November 20, 2019 8:21 pm

    Great review. I am glad you don’t drink the Scorsese gangster movie kool aid. I found The Irishman to be boring bloated and pretentiousReport

    Reply
  2. Steve M November 29, 2019 9:16 am

    Honest reviews are going to be few and far between. Everyone must kiss the ring, and this will probably extend to the academy. Thanks for telling it like it is, and your “Polar Express PTSD” comment was hilarious and spot on.Report

    Reply
  3. Michael November 30, 2019 2:04 pm

    I wish I had read this review before my wife and I threw away 3 hrs and 39 minutes of our lives. I can’t for the life of me figure out how anyone thought this was a good movie, let alone a great one.

    Stupid long, for the most part, boring and slow. The most hyped part – the CGI un-aging of Pesci, DeNiro, and Pacino – wasn’t all that good. Their faces look a lot like Tom Hank’s face in “The Polar Express” – flat, not quite 3D and taut, like someone who had too much botox.

    Now, you may be able to give their faces a youthful look, but their bodies, their movements and their speech were still those of 70-80-year-old men. When playing younger men, in their 40’s, they still had the old man shuffle, crooked elbows, hunched shoulders and flat feet – no spring in their steps. Their voices had that slightly slurred, two-drink sound, raspy and breathy like, well, old men. For me, gangster guys in movies need to have an intimidating physical presence. A certain unspoken but palpable menace to their personality. None of these guys, at 75+ years of age, had it. Pacino’s portrayal of Hoffa was incredbly lame. He looked like a 75 year old guy stumbling around with stooped shoulders and a weak persona. Hofffa was a force of nature, a fighter, a bully and physically brutish man who was willing to duke it out at the drop of a hat… Pacino? Not so much.

    Add in the story was way too long and far too involved for the tale to be told, and in the end, we just thought, “this is a bad movie.”Report

    Reply

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