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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.

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