Boy, Martin Scorsese sure has been busy lately. Granted, he’s always been busy throughout his 77 years of existence. He guards the holy treasures of cinema’s history while financially backing new films that don’t rely on product tie-ins or playing games with Jimmy Fallon to get people in seats. His filmography has covered everything from gangsters to Jesus to New Yorkers to gangsters to nineteenth-century dignitaries to gangsters to stock brokers to Bob Dylan, and then gangsters again. He’s done comedies, crime thrillers, foreign historical dramas, love stories and Michael Jackson’s bad-boy posing. And now as the skin around his square glasses continues to wrinkle, he wants to protect the art of cinema from the evils of those dastardly “theme parks” clogging up the cinema. Does he have a legitimate claim or is he “Old Man Yells At Cloud” to superhero movies? Well……yes, of course he has a legitimate claim. He’s Martin Goddamn Scorsese. But judging from his new movie, there’s also a case to be made that Marty’s aging is making him scared of the future.
Scorsese probably finds a lot of common ground with Frank Sheeran. Despite being the main character of The Irishman, Sheeran (Robert De Niro) can best be described as the middleman between the mob and the politicians. Sheeran starts as a mere truck driver in the 1950s doing favors for Philadelphia tough guy Skinny Razor (Bobby Cannavale) and impressing his associate, Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci). Sheeran’s skills, ranging from his friendly negotiating skills to his simplistic style of shooting people in the face, eventually get the attention of labor union leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). As the Teamsters leader garners more and more popularity, he looks to Sheeran as his muscle in the public eye and confidant in private. Then JFK becomes President and cracks down on organized crime (despite organized crime allegedly helping get him into office), so Hoffa wants more power and more respect. Bufalino and the other East Coast mobsters want him to quiet down and keep business as the focus. Sheeran is caught between the people who respect his work and the person who respects his character, putting his loyalty and soul in question.
So The Irishman is nearly three-and-a-half hours and….it certainly does not need to be. There’s a good 45 minutes to an hour could be cut from this because all 179-minutes border on punishing. The story starts decent enough and when Hoffa comes in, it’s the kick that gets the movie into a more relaxed groove. But once JFK gets elected and Hoffa takes the stand in front of Bobby Kennedy, there are so many random names and so much political procedural thrown out that it’s hard to care about what’s going on. Scorsese’s not being flashy or particularly stylish here like The Wolf of Wall Street or The Aviator. There are no grand shootouts or precariously composed segments backed by fondly-remembered radio hits. The Irishman has a style as bland and unassuming as the tacky button-ups the characters wear. Visually, the movie has more in common with Scorsese’s paranoid thriller Shutter Island thanks to the faded and grim cinematography of Rodridgo Prieto (The Wolf of Wall Street, Brokeback Mountain). That dull visual style sucks a lot of life out of the movie, keeping its pace mostly leisurely but at some times boring. As much as that presentation fits the story’s themes, it doesn’t make its flat moments any more appealing. People watching this on Netflix will likely be thankful for having the ability to pause and award themselves a break from the movie’s tedium.
All that said, there’s still plenty of damn fine material The Irishman has to offer. For starters, the de-aging effects on the actors aren’t all that distracting. Sure there are some moments where the faces look overly-smooth, but it’s easy to get used to and looks more natural over time. While its simplicity sometimes hold it back, it also provides some of the movie’s highlights. The brief bluntness of the movie’s violence is almost comical at points, taking one of the most frequently-glamorized things about gangsters and stripping it down to make it seem cowardly. At its core, The Irishman shows a very bleak and unglamorous look at gangster life and the scars it leaves on the families that fester as time goes by. The way these men distance themselves from their loved ones to do their dirty work could be seen as cool in one movie, but the script by Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List, The Night Of) sees it as tragic as the source material from Charles Brandt. Frank Sheeran’s daughters see him as a stranger, a ghost that is just out of reach to connect with. At work, he’s like a tennis ball beaten back and forth between the mob and the Worker’s Union. The movie is about the wear and tear he suffered being between those two egos, and Sheeran clearly suffered. Seeing such a simple man’s honor and integrity strung along for decades, only to be as disposable as all the revolvers he threw into the river, is heartbreaking for just one man. It’s a wonder what it did to the countless others pulling triggers and stealing money from egos in suits, which Scorsese shows as adding up to nothing more than the ways they were killed. The Irishman shows the comfort of gangster life turn to complacency, then compromise, then disposal of whatever ounce of worth one might have left. Yet they cling so hard to their pride of the olden days, they don’t see the end until Action Bronson sells them a coffin in the dead of winter.
It all makes De Niro a good choice to carry that burden throughout the movie. The de-aging effects serve him well as the audience gets to watch Sheeran’s dutiful nod wither into a frown he can’t shake off. He still looks like a tough guy and an imposing figure, but De Niro takes his time showing the pressure put on Sheeran and how he grows a conscience far too late for it to matter. It seems casual, but De Niro is patient showing the deterioration of Sheeran’s soul. The more showy performance is, of course, Pacino as Hoffa. Though the movie is restrained, Pacino lights up every single frame he’s in with his booming voice and hand movement that somehow conducts the scenes more than the director does behind the camera. He could easily be accused of overacting, but his performance is the perfect contrast to the casual mobsters. He also still holds that bond with De Niro and understands the affection Hoffa had for Sheeran, a tough guy still able to show common decency. Those looking for Pesci to reprise the violent madness he displayed in Goodfellas and Casino will be disappointed, yet he remains a scary figure even in overgrown sunglasses and relaxed line delivery. Even as a servant to the bigger mob guys, Pesci has the sinister nature of Mephistopheles himself, dutiful to the devil.
It’s almost pointless to call The Irishman overstuffed and bloated because, again, this is a Martin Scorsese movie we’re talking about. Even when he overindulges, he still churns out something brilliant. On paper and in theory, there is some brilliance in The Irishman. It’s easy to tell this had to be some kind of cathartic experience for Scorsese, feeling the walls close on him as he keeps getting older and trying to make a definitive statement of sorts. Maybe he thought so many people had missed the point of his prior gangster movies (and likely The Wolf of Wall Street) that he needed to make a crisp, blunt clarification before he goes? Scorsese without a doubt has the right intent and it’d be hard to find the person to tell him to reel things in. But some of The Irishman feels unnecessary and distracting, like Scorsese is merely filling out background for a high school history project. It’s one of his driest films, which both helps and hurts it in the long run. But that’s the thesis of The Irishman: the long run. What it looks like, how draining it can be and how there’s always an ending.