Skip to main content

You guys sure like watermelon.

The Irishman
aka
I Heard You Paint Houses
(2019)

(SPOILERS) Perhaps, if Martin Scorsese hadn’t been so opposed to the idea of Marvel movies constituting cinema, The Irishman would have been a better film. It’s a decent film, assuredly. A respectable film, definitely. But it’s very far from being classic. And a significant part of that is down to the usually assured director fumbling the execution. Or rather, the realisation. I don’t know what kind of crazy pills the ranks of revered critics have been taking so as to recite as one the mantra that you quickly get used to the de-aging effects so intrinsic to its telling – as Empire magazine put it, “you soon… fuggadaboutit” – but you don’t. There was no point during The Irishman that I was other than entirely, regrettably conscious that a 75-year-old man was playing the title character. Except when he was playing a 75-year-old man.

Because the reason the whole “Marvel ain’t cinema” thing came up in the first place was that Empire – them again – had asked his opinion of the de-aging on display in the MCU pantheon. Maybe if Marty had deigned to check those effects out, witnessed their strengths and shortcomings, he might have more successfully – even partially successfully would have been something – stooped to conquer the biggest barrier to The Irishman being a keeper. The de-aging in Marvel’s movies – and aging, come to that – is mostly highly impressive, and only occasionally betrays its shortcomings (Sam Jackson no longer having the dexterity of a man of forty). There’s a caveat to my complaints about ILM’s work on The Irishman, however. Which is that I’m not as disconcertingly distracted by the work on Al Pacino (as Teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa) and Joe Pesci (crime boss Russell Bufalino). I don’t forget – Pacino doesn’t remotely look like a man in his 40s – but I am involved in their performances to the extent that they’re more successes than failures.

But in the most important case, the main character, not only does the de-aging fail to transform Robert De Niro (Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran) into a man of thirty-ish – he never looks less than fifty, and that’s putting it kindly; a badly photoshopped sixty is closer to the ballpark – he moves and holds himself like an old giffer. There’s a fundamental disconnect in seeing a pensioner struggling to go through the paces with the young family he’s supposed to have in the 1950s. I mean, he isn’t supposed to be playing Mick Jagger. Or Steve Martin. Or the actual Robert De Niro. If I want to see aging stars acting like gangsters, I’ll check out Tough Guys knowing it’s intended to be for laughs. Which is the only feasible response when Russell continually refers to Sheeran as “kid”. Or the realisation that Jake Hoffman’s character (Allen Dorfman) is only three years younger than the Irishman.

Then there’s De Niro himself. The voiceover is fine, offering a steadier, world-wearier but not necessarily wiser (guy) contrast to Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill in Goodfellas. And Scorsese – and Thelma Schoonmaker – has lost none of his touch in blending the elements of montage, music and narration to mesmerising effect. But I’m just not feeling the performance. One might say that’s intentional, that Frank Sheeran should be something of a cypher, Forrest Gump-like, as he guides us through the underbelly of mid-twentieth century American history (the facts, of course, are disputed, but the most important element with this kind of account is how it plays dramatically).

Frank is, after all, a man who regrets the loss of his daughter Peggy’s respect, yet confesses that he doesn’t feel anything regarding his professed crimes, that it is all “water under the dam”. He further draws a blank when probed about remorse for his victim’s families (“I didn’t know them”). Still, though. I look at Pesci and Pacino here, and I’m in no doubt why they’re considered acting greats. I look at De Niro, encumbered by CGI that makes him look like a watery-eyed caricature from Dick Tracy, going through the motions of the kind of role we’ve seen many times before – latterly often to intentionally self-parodic effect – with the all-too-familiar gurns and ticks and stares, and I’m left musing that maybe, just maybe, if he put a sliver of the energy he expends raging at Trump into his performances, he’d remain a force to be reckoned with. One man’s helplessly self-destructive path is a common theme in Scorsese’s protagonists, and the film’s last hour is clearly striving for such substance, but it leaves one largely unmoved.

If I say almost everything else clicks, unfortunately that can’t be enough. Sheehan is our window on this world; he’s in no way an audience surrogate, but it’s his (possibly tall) tale we’re following, so if he’s unable to carry that weight, the foundations are tentative at best. We follow Frank’s induction into the gangster world and casual graduation to occasional hit man, and it has the air of “been there, done that” familiarity. Probably because we’ve seen it before, done more energetically. You’re engaged by Liotta, you’re conspicuously unpersuaded by De Niro.

It’s a joy to have Pesci back, and he attacks the role of Russell Bufalino with surface affability but underlying flint. We don’t really need the shot of Russell coming home one evening in a bloodied shirt to tell us what he’s capable of. It’s clear. He and Pacino are the real stars of this show, and the picture is at by far its most engaging when Hoffa is front and centre (“You charge with a gun. With a knife you run” he instructs poetically after an “assassination” attempt). Hoffa offers The Irishman’s dynamic, whether working with the mob or working against them; his final stages, as he spirals out of favour, a loose cannon who needs to be dealt with, represents the film at its best, and Russell’s regret at what he will have to do – “It is what it is” – has more resonance than Sheeran’s response, even though the latter is so much closer to Hoffa.

The biggest fireworks come between Pacino and Stephen Graham as “Tony Pro” Provenzano, a Teamster underling and pain in Hoffa’s ass, and his outright nemesis following an altercation while incarcerated. Once out, Tony Pro further infuriates the now ex-Teamster boss by showing up for a meeting fifteen minutes late and failing to wear a suit. Every moment between them is electric, and their scenes are no less compelling and commanding for the knowledge that both Pacino and Graham can do this kind of gangster thing in their sleep.

Teamsters-related business provides for the bulk of The Irishman (although it’s getting on for an hour before Hoffa first appears), interweaved during the mid-section with the political ambitions of the Kennedys. Possibly intentionally, this element never bears the dramatic weight we might expect; JFK is, after all, a merely a means to an end for the mob and the Teamsters, and so is treated similarly objectively when he becomes a thorn in their side. As we see in the response to news of his assassination; Hoffa’s reaction to the flag flying at half-mast at the Teamsters headquarters is particularly emphatic. The world of political assassinations is much less labyrinthine and more straightforward in Sheeran’s literal, cause-and-effect sphere (amusingly, at one point, Pesci gives De Niro instructions relating to a meeting with the character the former played in JFK).

Scorsese litters The Irishman with memorable faces and/or characters, and despite its sprawling length – it’s too long to really feel a sense of structure at work – most of them leave you wanting more. This ranges from actors familiar to filling out underworld types (Harvey Keitel, Bobby Cannavale) to unfamiliar ones; Ray Romana is great as Pesci’s lawyer brother, coming on like a less quirky Jeff Goldblum, and you want to see more of his satellite arena (casually spinning a line about his brother's familiarity with engines: "Yeah, well you know, he knows everything about trucks. He worked for Canada Dry for a long time").

Jessie Plemons plays Hoffa’s foster son Chuckie O’Brien – reputedly the inspiration for Tom Hagen – whose role in his father’s death is given a degree of ambiguity, even if Sheeran appears to exonerate him via voiceover. The scene where Chuckie, Sheeran and Sally Bugs (Louis Cancelmi) fatefully set off to pick up Hoffa, Chuckie having sodden the back seat with a fish, is classic Scorsese (“What kind of fish?”) Indeed, it’s another instance where you’d quite easily leave Sheeran and follow the supporting characters for the rest of the picture.

Elsewhere, the strongest impression Sheeran’s family makes – predictably, Scorsese has been criticised in respect of limited female roles, but it’s one of the less valid complaints – is actually that of his silently judgemental daughter Peggy. But the seven-year-old version (Lucy Gallina) rather than adult Anna Paquin; she’s granted almost preternatural insight into the good (Hoffa) and bad (Russell, Frank himself) of her father’s world.

I don’t think The Irishman stumbles just because of its failed foray into de-aging, but it’s the most obvious impediment to immersion in this mob milieu. There were age-appropriate issues with Goodfellas too, of course, but there was no physical barrier – or digital sheen, if you will – seperating us from the characters. Scorsese’s problems are compounded, however, by a lead actor who, quite simply, lacks the stature he once had, and is unable to rise to the challenge of a not wholly dissimilar, decades-spanning journey into moral degradation he previously essayed in Once Upon a Time in America. There’s also the director not entirely persuading us he needed to tell this story. You knew he was invigorated and impassioned by Mean Streets and Goodfellas. Less so with Casino. The Irishman is very much of the latter ilk. It’s an engaging, watchable picture – not a chore, despite the undoubtedly indulgent length – but inhabiting well-trodden terrain and distracting in execution. 

There’s a lot of Oscar buzz surrounding the film, particularly with career-crowning achievement garlands being thrown its way, but if anything, The Irishman – curiously also bearing the title of Charles Brandt’s book on the opening and closing titles – is less akin to Goodfellas than another Best Picture Oscar nominee from 1990. No one is now suggesting The Godfather Part III deserved those seven Academy Award nominations. But then, neither were they at the time.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

No matter how innocent you are, or how hard you try, they’ll find you guilty.

The Wrong Man (1956) (SPOILERS) I hate to say it, but old Truffaut called it right on this one. More often than not showing obeisance to the might of Hitchcock during his career-spanning interview, the French critic turned director was surprisingly blunt when it came to The Wrong Man . He told Hitch “ your style, which has found its perfection in the fiction area, happens to be in total conflict with the aesthetics of the documentary and that contradiction is apparent throughout the picture ”. There’s also another, connected issue with this, one Hitch acknowledged: too much fidelity to the true story upon which the film is based.

He’s so persistent! He always gets his man.

Speed (1994) (SPOILERS) It must have been a couple of decades since I last viewed Speed all the way through, so it’s pleasing to confirm that it holds up. Sure, Jan de Bont’s debut as a director can’t compete with the work of John McTiernan, for whom he acted as cinematographer and who recommended de Bont when he passed on the picture, but he nevertheless does a more than competent work. Which makes his later turkeys all the more tragic. And Keanu and Sandra Bullock display the kind of effortless chemistry you can’t put a price tag on. And then there’s Dennis Hopper, having a great old sober-but-still-looning time.

How would Horatio Alger have handled this situation?

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) (SPOILERS) Gilliam’s last great movie – The Zero Theorem (2013) is definitely underrated, but I don’t think it’s that underrated – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas could easily have been too much. At times it is, but in such instances, intentionally so. The combination of a visual stylist and Hunter S Thompson’s embellished, propulsive turn of phrase turns out, for the most part, to be a cosmically aligned affair, embracing the anarchic abandon of Raoul Duke and Doctor Gonzo’s Las Vegas debauch while contriving to pull back at crucial junctures in order to engender a perspective on all this hedonism. Would Alex Cox, who exited stage left, making way for the Python, have produced something interesting? I suspect, ironically, he would have diluted Thompson in favour of whatever commentary preoccupied him at the time (indeed, Johnny Depp said as much: “ Cox had this great material to work with and he took it and he added his own stuff to it ”). Plus

But everything is wonderful. We are in Paris.

Cold War (2018) (SPOILERS) Pawel Pawlikowski’s elliptical tale – you can’t discuss Cold War without saying “elliptical” at least once – of frustrated love charts a course that almost seems to be a caricature of a certain brand of self-congratulatorily tragic European cinema. It was, it seems “ loosely inspired ” by his parents (I suspect I see where the looseness comes in), but there’s a sense of calculation to the progression of this love story against an inescapable political backdrop that rather diminishes it.

To survive a war, you gotta become war.

Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) (SPOILERS?) I’d like to say it’s mystifying that a film so bereft of merit as Rambo: First Blood Part II could have finished up the second biggest hit of 1985. It wouldn’t be as bad if it was, at minimum, a solid action movie, rather than an interminable bore. But the movie struck a chord somewhere, somehow. As much as the most successful picture of that year, Back to the Future , could be seen to suggest moviegoers do actually have really good taste, Rambo rather sends a message about how extensively regressive themes were embedding themselves in Reaganite, conservative ‘80s cinema (to be fair, this is something one can also read into Back to the Future ), be those ones of ill-conceived nostalgia or simple-minded jingoism, notional superiority and might. The difference between Stallone and Arnie movies starts right here; self-awareness. Audiences may have watched R ambo in the same way they would a Schwarzenegger picture, but I’m

What do they do, sing madrigals?

The Singing Detective (2003) Icon’s remake of the 1986 BBC serial, from a screenplay by Dennis Potter himself. The Singing Detective fares less well than Icon’s later adaptation of Edge of Darkness , even though it’s probably more faithful to Potter’s original. Perhaps the fault lies in the compression of six episodes into a feature running a quarter of that time, but the noir fantasy and childhood flashbacks fail to engage, and if the hospital reality scans better, it too suffers eventually.

One final thing I have to do, and then I’ll be free of the past.

Vertigo (1958) (SPOILERS) I’ll readily admit my Hitchcock tastes broadly tend to reflect the “consensus”, but Vertigo is one where I break ranks. To a degree. Not that I think it’s in any way a bad film, but I respect it rather than truly rate it. Certainly, I can’t get on board with Sight & Sound enthroning it as the best film ever made (in its 2012’s critics poll). That said, from a technical point of view, it is probably Hitch’s peak moment. And in that regard, certainly counts as one of his few colour pictures that can be placed alongside his black and white ones. It’s also clearly a personal undertaking, a medley of his voyeuristic obsessions (based on D’entre les morts by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac).

The game is rigged, and it does not reward people who play by the rules.

Hustlers (2019) (SPOILERS) Sold as a female Goodfellas – to the extent that the producers had Scorsese in mind – this strippers-and-crime tale is actually a big, glossy puff piece, closer to Todd Phillips as fashioned by Lorene Scarfia. There are some attractive performances in Hustlers, notably from Constance Wu, but for all its “progressive” women work male objectification to their advantage posturing, it’s incredibly traditional and conservative deep down.

You were a few blocks away? What’d you see it with, a telescope?

The Eyes of Laura Mars (1978) (SPOILERS) John Carpenter’s first serial-killer screenplay to get made, The Eyes of Laura Mars came out nearly three months before Halloween. You know, the movie that made the director’s name. And then some. He wasn’t best pleased with the results of The Eyes of Laura Mars, which ended up co-credited to David Zelag Goodman ( Straw Dogs , Logan’s Run ) as part of an attempt by producer Jon Peters to manufacture a star vehicle for then-belle Barbra Streisand: “ The original script was very good, I thought. But it got shat upon ”. Which isn’t sour grapes on Carpenter’s part. The finished movie bears ready evidence of such tampering, not least in the reveal of the killer (different in Carpenter’s conception). Its best features are the so-uncleanly-you-can-taste-it 70s New York milieu and the guest cast, but even as an early example of the sub-genre, it’s burdened by all the failings inherit with this kind of fare.

He is a brigand and a lout. Pay him no serious mention.

The Wind and the Lion (1975) (SPOILERS) John Milius called his second feature a boy’s-own adventure, on the basis of the not-so-terrified responses of one of those kidnapped by Sean Connery’s Arab Raisuli. Really, he could have been referring to himself, in all his cigar-chomping, gun-toting reactionary glory, dreaming of the days of real heroes. The Wind and the Lion rather had its thunder stolen by Jaws on release, and it’s easy to see why. As polished as the picture is, and simultaneously broad-stroke and self-aware in its politics, it’s very definitely a throwback to the pictures of yesteryear. Only without the finger-on-the-pulse contemporaneity of execution that would make Spielberg and Lucas’ genre dives so memorable in a few short years’ time.