The Irishman (2019)
The Irishman (2019)

Genre: Crime Drama and Gangster Running Time: 3 hrs. 29 min.

Release Date: November 27th, 2019 MPAA Rating: R

Director: Martin Scorsese Actors: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Anna Paquin, Jesse Plemons, Bobby Cannavale, Harvey Keitel, Ray Romano, Stephen Graham, Kathrine Narducci, Domenick Lombardozzi, Stephanie Kurtzuba




he introductory music selection is straight out of “Goodfellas,” as is the narration by the elderly Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran (Robert De Niro), who recounts his life story to the audience – and, as it turns out, to no one in particular in the context of the film. He served in World War II before becoming an everyday working stiff, driving cuts of meat in a refrigerated truck, which eventually leads to an acquaintance with gangster Skinny Razor (Bobby Cannavale), who sets up a hindquarter scam. This arrangement, in turn, transitions to the hiring of lawyer William Bufalino (Ray Romano), who helps Frank avoid legal problems when missing steaks add up (“I work hard for them when I’m not stealing from them”). And William happens to be related to Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), a mafia boss (along with Angelo Bruno [Harvey Keitel]), who takes Frank under his wing, soon employing him as a “house painter” or hitman for all sorts of organized crime.

At the start, Sheeran and his wife Irene (Stephanie Kurtzuba) drive Russell and his wife Carrie (Kathrine Narducci) from Philadelphia through Ohio to Detroit, over the course of three days, to attend a Bufalino wedding. More than three hours of screentime later, they finally arrive (in a sequence utilizing extreme slow-motion that seems to mock the viewer for the considerable wait). It’s no secret that director Martin Scorsese likes to film as much as he wants to, caring little for whether or not audiences will be able to watch all of it in one sitting or not. Intercut with the lengthy drive, which is peppered with gas station stops and cigarette breaks, is a lifetime of biographical accounts, detailing Frank’s involvement with the Philadelphia mob.

Since Russell is well-connected, deep-pocketed, highly influential, and quite the problem-solver, he’s essentially the equivalent of Vito Corleone, operating on respect, family, fortunes, and favors. The tough-guy blueprints are ever-present, alternating between negotiating and intimidating and countering wrongs with violence. When money or persuasion is needed, crime is always the solution. Sheeran narrates with humorously candid explanations about murder and other thuggery, as if he’s explaining an average job no different than carpentry or data input. There’s nothing larger-than-life about his line of work; killing, meddling in politics, and accruing sizable sums of money are matter-of-fact routines. And, expectedly, dying of natural causes isn’t the norm; countless true-to-life characters receive a few seconds of interruptive statistics to denote how they would eventually perish – most commonly from bullets to the face (after all, “The Irishman” includes accounts of real people and situations).

When it comes to cinematic yarns of fraud, extortion, racketeering, jury-tampering, and assassinations, it’s quite comfortable to see De Niro, Pesci, Keitel, Pacino, and more settling back into this time period and environment. They’re legends of gangster flicks being directed by a legendary gangster flick director. Yet it’s also a touch too familiar, recalling “Mean Streets,” “Raging Bull,” “Goodfellas,” and “Casino,” as if “The Irishman” (also subtitled “I Heard You Paint Houses,” the title of the book by Charles Brandt, on which this film is based) is something of an excuse to get the band back together. Scorsese may be one of the best when it comes to this genre, but he’s not exactly stepping out of his comfort zone with this latest endeavor.

Amusingly, Sheeran’s dealings weave into major historical events, from the Kennedy dynasty to the Bay of Pigs invasion to Watergate to Jimmy Hoffa’s (Al Pacino, frequently getting to do his signature freak-outs) union undertakings. A history lesson (highlighting corruption in every facet of government) runs right alongside the mafia hoopla. Due to the span of decades, the computer-augmented de-aging techniques that have been popular in a number of films this year alone are in overdrive here, allowing the elderly cast to recoup a generous portion of their younger selves. Fortunately, it’s never jarring or unnatural; the technology has advanced to the point that it doesn’t interfere with the storytelling. This is quite the boon; had it been less convincing, it might have detracted markedly not only from the acting but also from cozying up to the characters.

With Scorsese’s brand of gangsterism, which tends to blend bloodshed with cheery classical tunes and a wink and a smirk, “The Irishman” is off to a good start. But unlike in “Goodfellas,” the biographical chronicle doesn’t always feel as if it’s heading toward something concrete. Regularly, it lingers on items that seem trivial, or comprehensively focuses on covering every bit of a headline hit; at times, it appears that there is no end, save for the creeping deaths of all the aging main characters. Perhaps it will go on forever, until the end of the era. The factual components and implications of Sheeran’s purported involvement in real events are astounding. But there’s clearly enough content here for more than one picture – or even a miniseries. By the time Crazy Joe Gallo (Sebastian Maniscalco) shows up, it might has well be the start of a whole new movie.

The typical wiseguy conversations are abundant, nicely balancing comedy with ferocity; the dialogue is sensational, delivered expertly by a veteran cast. And though the pacing poses a number of issues, there’s exceptional tension in certain spots, especially when car bombs become so numerous that no one appears safe from spontaneous detonation. Strangely, however, the only characters who are fully fleshed out are the mobsters. Even with its unwieldy running time, the roles with the most emotional impact receive very few lines; Anna Paquin as Peggy, one of Frank’s daughters, says only a couple of sentences, while Sheeran’s wife and other children, Russell’s wife, and Hoffa’s family contribute almost nothing.

By the end of it all, instead of recognizing the stark ramifications of criminal activities on innocent lives, the gangsters are simply alone with one another, questionably seeking normal family relationships, whose deprivation never seemed to bother them before. Sympathy and concern is ample when it comes to Sheeran and Hoffa, yet their families are absent throughout most of the film, robbing viewers of the emotional resonance that could have come from a detailed closeness to relatives. In Frank’s case, Peggy’s role – and her rebellion at his murderous livelihood – should have been revelatory. But instead it’s moderately sad only because Sheeran has deteriorated into something so pitiful – and not because audiences know the extent to which Peggy (and her siblings) suffered throughout their childhoods or resisted accepting their father’s shady business dealings. The parting shots are nevertheless poignant, noting that terrible things continue to repeat themselves when no one remembers important historical players, as well as observing that the only unconditional judge, jury, and executioner is time itself. The people at the top tend to face no other form of justice. “Everybody’s dead, Mr. Sheeran.”

– Mike Massie

  • 5/10