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.

Popular posts from this blog

The Illumi-what-i?

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022) (SPOILERS) In which Sam Raimi proves that he can stand proudly with the best – or worst – of them as a good little foot soldier of the woke apocalypse. You’d expect the wilfully anarchic – and Republican – Raimi to choke on the woke, but instead, he’s sucked it up, grinned and bore it. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is so slavishly a production-line Marvel movie, both in plotting and character, and in nu-Feige progressive sensibilities, there was no chance of Sam staggering out from beneath its suffocating demands with anything more than a few scraps of stylistic flourish intact.

What’s so bad about being small? You’re not going to be small forever.

Innerspace (1987) There’s no doubt that Innerspace is a flawed movie. Joe Dante finds himself pulling in different directions, his instincts for comic subversion tempered by the need to play the romance plot straight. He tacitly acknowledges this on the DVD commentary for the film, where he notes Pauline Kael’s criticism that he was attempting to make a mainstream movie; and he was. But, as ever with Dante, it never quite turns out that way. Whereas his kids’ movies treat their protagonists earnestly, this doesn’t come so naturally with adults. I’m a bona fide devotee of Innerspace , but I can’t help but be conscious of its problems. For the most part Dante papers over the cracks; the movie hits certain keynotes of standard Hollywood prescription scripting. But his sensibility inevitably suffuses it. That, and human cartoon Martin Short (an ideal “leading man” for the director) ensure what is, at first glance just another “ Steven Spielberg Presents ” sci-fi/fantas

This risotto is shmackin’, dude.

Stranger Things Season 4: Part I (SPOILERS) I haven’t had cause, or the urge, to revisit earlier seasons of Stranger Things , but I’m fairly certain my (relatively) positive takes on the first two sequel seasons would adjust down somewhat if I did (a Soviet base under Hawkins? DUMB soft disclosure or not, it’s pretty dumb). In my Season Three review, I called the show “ Netflix’s best-packaged junk food. It knows not to outstay its welcome, doesn’t cause bloat and is disposable in mostly good ways ” I fairly certain the Duffer’s weren’t reading, but it’s as if they decided, as a rebuke, that bloat was the only way to go for Season Four. Hence episodes approaching (or exceeding) twice the standard length. So while the other points – that it wouldn’t stray from its cosy identity and seasons tend to merge in the memory – hold fast, you can feel the ambition of an expansive canvas faltering at the hurdle of Stranger Things ’ essential, curated, nostalgia-appeal inconsequentiality.

Is this supposed to be me? It’s grotesque.

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent (2022) (SPOILERS) I didn’t hold out much hope for The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent being more than moderately tolerable. Not so much because its relatively untested director and his co-writer are mostly known in the TV sphere (and not so much for anything anyone is raving about). Although, it has to be admitted, the finished movie flourishes a degree of digital flatness typical of small-screen productions (it’s fine, but nothing more). Rather, due to the already over-tapped meta-strain of celebs showing they’re good sports about themselves. When Spike Jonze did it with John Malkovich, it was weird and different. By the time we had JCVD , not so much. And both of them are pre-dated by Arnie in Last Action Hero (“ You brought me nothing but pain ” he is told by Jack Slater). Plus, it isn’t as if Tom Gormican and Kevin Etten have much in the way of an angle on Nic; the movie’s basically there to glorify “him”, give or take a few foibles, do

Whacking. I'm hell at whacking.

Witness (1985) (SPOILERS) Witness saw the advent of a relatively brief period – just over half a decade –during which Harrison Ford was willing to use his star power in an attempt to branch out. The results were mixed, and abruptly concluded when his typically too late to go where Daniel Day Lewis, Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro had gone before (with at bare minimum Oscar-nominated results) – but not “ full retard ” – ended in derision with Regarding Henry . He retreated to the world of Tom Clancy, and it’s the point where his cachet began to crumble. There had always been a stolid quality beneath even his more colourful characters, but now it came to the fore. You can see something of that as John Book in Witness – despite his sole Oscar nom, it might be one of Ford’s least interesting performances of the 80s – but it scarcely matters, or that the screenplay (which won) is by turns nostalgic, reactionary, wistful and formulaic, as director Peter Weir, in his Hollywood debu

Are you telling me that I should take my daughter to a witch doctor?

The Exorcist (1973) (SPOILERS) Vast swathes have been written on The Exorcist , duly reflective of its cultural impact. In a significant respect, it’s the first blockbuster – forget Jaws – and also the first of a new kind of special-effects movie. It provoked controversy across all levels of the socio-political spectrum, for explicit content and religious content, both hailed and denounced for the same. William Friedkin, director of William Peter Blatty’s screenplay based on Blatty’s 1971 novel, would have us believe The Exorcist is “ a film about the mystery of faith ”, but it’s evidently much more – and less – than that. There’s a strong argument to be made that movies having the kind of seismic shock on the landscape this one did aren’t simply designed to provoke rumination (or exultation); they’re there to profoundly influence society, even if largely by osmosis, and when one looks at this picture’s architects, such an assessment only gains in credibility.

That, my lad, was a dragon.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013) (SPOILERS) It’s alarming how quickly Peter Jackson sabotaged all the goodwill he amassed in the wake of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. A guy who started out directing deliciously deranged homemade horror movies ended up taking home the Oscar for a fantasy movie, of all genres. And then he blew it. He went from a filmmaker whose naysayers were the exception to one whose remaining cheerleaders are considered slightly maladjusted. The Desolation of Smaug recovers some of the territory Jackson has lost over the last decade, but he may be too far-gone to ever regain his crown. Perhaps in years to come The Lord of the Rings trilogy will be seen as an aberration in his filmography. There’s a cartoonishness to the gleeful, twisted anarchy on display in his earlierr work that may be more attuned to the less verimilitudinous aspects of King Kong and The Hobbit s. The exceptions are his female-centric character dramas, Heavenly Creat

Gizmo caca!

Gremlins (1984) I didn’t get to see Gremlins at the cinema. I wanted to, as I had worked myself into a state of great anticipation. There was a six-month gap between its (unseasonal) US release and arrival in the UK, so I had plenty of time to devour clips of cute Gizmo on Film ’84 (the only reason ever to catch Barry Norman was a tantalising glimpse of a much awaited movie, rather than his drab, colourless, reviews) and Gremlins trading cards that came with bubble gum attached (or was it the other way round?). But Gremlins ’ immediate fate for many an eager youngster in Britain was sealed when, after much deliberation, the BBFC granted it a 15 certificate. I had just turned 12, and at that time an attempt to sneak in to see it wouldn’t even have crossed my mind. I’d just have to wait for the video. I didn’t realise it then (because I didn’t know who he was as a filmmaker), but Joe Dante’s irrepressible anarchic wit would have a far stronger effect on me than the un

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991) (SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls… dyin’ time’s here!

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985) Time was kind to Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome . As in, it was such a long time since I’d seen the “final chapter” of the trilogy, it had dwindled in my memory to the status of an “alright but not great” sequel. I’d half-expected to have positive things to say along the lines of it being misunderstood, or being able to see what it was trying for but perhaps failing to quite achieve. Instead, I re-discovered a massive turkey that is really a Mad Max movie in name only (appropriately, since Max was an afterthought). This is the kind of picture fans of beloved series tend to loathe; when a favourite character returns but without the qualities or tone that made them adored in the first place (see Indiana Jones in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull , or John McClane in the last two Die Hard s). Thunderdome stinks even more than the methane fuelling Bartertown. I hadn’t been aware of the origins of Thunderdome until recently, mainly because I was