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

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

We live in a twilight world.

Tenet (2020)
(SPOILERS) I’ve endured a fair few confusingly-executed action sequences in movies – more than enough, actually – but I don’t think I’ve previously had the odd experience of being on the edge of my seat during one while simultaneously failing to understand its objectives and how those objectives are being attempted. Which happened a few times during Tenet. If I stroll over to the Wiki page and read the plot synopsis, it is fairly explicable (fairly) but as a first dive into this Christopher Nolan film, I frequently found it, if not impenetrable, then most definitely opaque.

You can’t climb a ladder, no. But you can skip like a goat into a bar.

Juno and the Paycock (1930)
(SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s second sound feature. Such was the lustre of this technological advance that a wordy play was picked. By Sean O’Casey, upon whom Hitchcock based the prophet of doom at the end of The Birds. Juno and the Paycock, set in 1922 during the Irish Civil War, begins as a broad comedy of domestic manners, but by the end has descended into full-blown Greek (or Catholic) tragedy. As such, it’s an uneven but still watchable affair, even if Hitch does nothing to disguise its stage origins.

The protocol actually says that most Tersies will say this has to be a dream.

Jupiter Ascending (2015)
(SPOILERS) The Wachowski siblings’ wildly patchy career continues apace. They bespoiled a great thing with The Matrix sequels (I liked the first, not the second), misfired with Speed Racer (bubble-gum visuals aside, hijinks and comedy ain’t their forte) and recently delivered the Marmite Sense8 for Netflix (I was somewhere in between on it). Their only slam-dunk since The Matrix put them on the movie map is Cloud Atlas, and even that’s a case of rising above its limitations (mostly prosthetic-based). Jupiter Ascending, their latest cinema outing and first stab at space opera, elevates their lesser works by default, however. It manages to be tone deaf in all the areas that count, and sadly fetches up at the bottom of their filmography pile.

This is a case where the roundly damning verdicts have sadly been largely on the ball. What’s most baffling about the picture is that, after a reasonably engaging set-up, it determinedly bores the pants off you. I haven’t enco…

Seems silly, doesn't it? A wedding. Given everything that's going on.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I (2010)
(SPOILERS) What’s good in the first part of the dubiously split (of course it was done for the art) final instalment in the Harry Potter saga is very good, let down somewhat by decisions to include material that would otherwise have been rightly excised and the sometimes-meandering travelogue. Even there, aspects of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I can be quite rewarding, taking on the tone of an apocalyptic ‘70s aftermath movie or episode of Survivors (the original version), as our teenage heroes (some now twentysomethings) sleep rough, squabble, and try to salvage a plan. The main problem is that the frequently strong material requires a robust structure to get the best from it.

You know what I think? I think he just wants to see one cook up close.

The Green Mile (1999)
(SPOILERS) There’s something very satisfying about the unhurried confidence of the storytelling in Frank Darabont’s two prison-set Stephen King adaptations (I’m less beholden to supermarket sweep The Mist); it’s sure, measured and precise, certain that the journey you’re being take on justifies the (indulgent) time spent, without the need for flashy visuals or ornate twists (the twists there are feel entirely germane – with a notable exception – as if they could only be that way). But. The Green Mile has rightly come under scrutiny for its reliance on – or to be more precise, building its foundation on – the “Magical Negro” trope, served with a mild sprinkling of idiot savant (so in respect of the latter, a Best Supporting Actor nomination was virtually guaranteed). One might argue that Stephen King’s magical realist narrative flourishes well-worn narrative ploys and characterisations at every stage – such that John Coffey’s initials are announcement enough of his…

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

Anything can happen in Little Storping. Anything at all.

The Avengers 2.22: Murdersville
Brian Clemens' witty take on village life gone bad is one of the highlights of the fifth season. Inspired by Bad Day at Black Rock, one wonders how much Murdersville's premise of unsettling impulses lurking beneath an idyllic surface were set to influence both Straw Dogs and The Wicker Mana few years later (one could also suggest it premeditates the brand of backwoods horrors soon to be found in American cinema from the likes of Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper).

When I barked, I was enormous.

Dean Spanley (2008)
(SPOILERS) There is such a profusion of average, respectable – but immaculately made – British period drama held up for instant adulation, it’s hardly surprising that, when something truly worthy of acclaim comes along, it should be singularly ignored. To be fair, Dean Spanleywas well liked by critics upon its release, but its subsequent impact has proved disappointingly slight. Based on Lord Dunsany’s 1939 novella, My Talks with Dean Spanley, our narrator relates how the titular Dean’s imbibification of a moderate quantity of Imperial Tokay (“too syrupy”, is the conclusion reached by both members of the Fisk family regarding this Hungarian wine) precludes his recollection of a past life as a dog. 

Inevitably, reviews pounced on the chance to reference Dean Spanley as a literal shaggy dog story, so I shall get that out of the way now. While the phrase is more than fitting, it serves to underrepresent how affecting the picture is when it has cause to be, as does any re…

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989)
(SPOILERS) There’s Jaws, there’s Star Wars, and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy, to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “mainly boring”.

Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the system when Burton did it (even…