Reel Review - The Irishman (2019)

Title: The Irishman

Directed by: Martin Scorsese

Written by: Steven Zaillian

Starring: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino & Joe Pesci

Produced by: Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro, Jane Rosenthal, Emma Tillinger Koskoff, Irwin Winkler, Gerald Chamales, Gastón Pavlovich, Randall Emmett & Gabriele Israilovici

           Perhaps the most self-indulgent film ever made, The Irishman takes what feels like the entire night to tell in painstaking and erroneous detail, a story that no one ever asked to hear. From its truly unnecessary run-time to its broken narrative structure, this film dodders more than the golden oldies who made it. In other words, it is a faithful adaptation of its source material.


           The Irishman is the screen adaptation of I Heard You Paint Houses: Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran and Closing the Case on Jimmy Hoffa by Charles Brandt—work of narrative non-fiction whose long-winded title is the least tedious thing about it. Produced and directed by Martin Scorsese, the film follows the confessions of a retired hitman for the Bufalino crime family, from his years as a truck driver to his apparent involvement in the disappearance of teamster Jimmy Hoffa.


           Let’s start with the good. After lofty careers that have been as deeply gratifying and delicious as a full-course Italian dinner, we are finally treated to the Scorsese-DeNiro-Pacino-Pesci dessert that we’ve been waiting for. With appetizers like Taxi Driver and Raging Bull going back decades, an entrée like The Godfather Part II and sides like Heat, the expectations for this final course to serve as the magnum opus for all of these Hollywood legends were high. And, as the plate is laid out before us, the initial presentation does not disappoint.


           The performances of Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci play like a Neapolitan trifecta. Robert De Niro’s Frank Sheeran never seems like a stretch for the veteran actor—it certainly never takes him out of his comfort zone—but that’s a good thing. Over the arduous run-time of this film, De Niro’s seamless transition—aided by some movie-magic from Scorsese’s three-camera set-up—of his character from heedless youth to hardened senescence keeps you watching long past when you should have fallen asleep. Al Pacino gives us a Jimmy Hoffa that is electric when he needs him to be and pitiable when he wants him to be, often times within the same scene. And then there’s Joe Pesci’s Russell Bufalino. Pesci came out of retirement to bring this nuanced character to life, giving him the warm and welcoming aura of a mobster, whose open arms somehow still send a chill down your spine—I can’t think of anyone else who could have pulled it off so sincerely.

“The performances of Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci play like a Neapolitan trifecta.”

           In a year that gave us some impressive ensembles—Parasite, Bombshell and Little Women—these mob-movie legends, with the help of a stellar supporting cast, stand out and put on full display why their particular flavour of movie-magic has whetted our appetites for decades.


           Scorsese’s vision to tell a sweeping crime epic with all of the grandiosity of Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather Trilogy is clear from the opening scene—if only, like Coppola, he had Mario Puzo’s source material to work with. And herein lies the bad. This story is too short to be epic and too long to be effectual. It’s a collection of conjectures, strung together with just enough reality to be believable and not nearly enough fiction to be compelling.


           Perhaps if screenwriter Steven Zaillian—responsible for masterpieces such as American Gangster, Gangs of New York and Hannibal—had been permitted to stray further afield from Charles Brandt’s shameless schlock of a book then we might have had something great on our hands. Instead, we’re left with a three-and-a-half-hour slough that feels like that time when you unwittingly asked the geriatric sitting next to you on a park bench a simple question only to get roped into listening to a story that you didn’t ask to hear about people you aren’t sure you care about.


           For all of its promise, The Irishman isn’t The Godfather though the combined efforts of its tremendous cast and crew are just enough to overcome the lacklustre material.


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