It took 15 years, three studios and $159 million, but “The Irishman” is finally here.
“The Irishman” is the latest film from Martin Scorsese and has been anticipated as much for its cast and director as it was for its infamous budget issues, extensive use of de-aging technology and being Netflix’s biggest and most ambitious release to-date. The film follows Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), as he gets tied up in the Pennsylvania crime world (led by Joe Pesci) and the union war centered around Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino).
This has been atop my most anticipated for over a year now. There were rumors it may be rushed to make the end of last year’s award schedule but the film continued to run into problems with the de-aging, which was ballooning in costs (some were reporting it ran over $50 million to do the post-production). The film finally got its November 2019 release date, the 1st in theaters and will stream on Netflix starting the 27th. I am glad and humbled I got to experience a film of this scale and with this many legends in a crowded theater with proper sound equipment and not on my 4” phone or pausing every 35 minutes to check a text while it streams on my TV. And while “The Irishman” may not rank among Scorsese’s best work it is still a privilege to watch three legends share the screen and witness a man who is synonymous with the gangster genre make his possible last stop at that station.
I feel that all three of the leading men in this film, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci, will have their own supporters as to who steals the show and who the film truly belongs to. For the most part, De Niro is “solid” in the film, not given too much to do or revealed about his inner thoughts for the first two acts. It is the film’s climax where he is finally given material he can work with, and he nails it. Despite being the titular character and the vehicle for the audience to experience the world (I think he’s in mostly every scene of the film), we don’t peel back the curtain until that third act.
Al Pacino will likely be most people’s favorite performance of the trio as the loud, angry and ego-driven Jimmy Hoffa. He gets the classic Pacino rants and raves to do, and at times (especially when first introduced) he may come off like a cartoon, but it is never not entertaining, and like De Niro it all comes to a head in the film’s third act.
But for my money, it was the previously (unofficially) retired Joe Pesci that stole the show and broke my heart. Playing Russell Bufalino, head of the Pennsylvania crime family, Pesci has a presence about him in every scene he’s in that just says “I’m in control, I hold the strings” and there is one scene where he conveys this by just sitting and staring as a conversation between two other people plays out, it’s phenomenal. There is an underlying message about Bufalino and his desires to be a father, and the way it grows and is conveyed was devastating; Scorsese actually got me to feel sympathy for a criminal who sanctioned the deaths of dozens of people, and that is his gift.
As far as the de-aging goes, it is a lukewarm but overall positive bag. When you first see De Niro (who is supposed to be about 35 in the scene but still comes across as 50, guess you can only de-age someone so far), the image is a little creepy and animated, but your brain quickly adjusts. If anything, the bright blue contacts they have him wear throughout the film are more distracting than the de-aging. The work on Joe Pesci is a little more subtle, his problem is he’s a 76-year-old asked to move around like a 50-year-old, and like Samuel L. Jackson in “Captain Marvel” you can’t hide the slow movements of old joints. Al Pacino’s de-aging is actually brilliant, I never once questioned it. (While on the subject of special effects, there are a few wonky green screen sequences that I’m surprised made it passed the cutting room floor but in the grand scheme of things that is hardly a concern.)
Now the elephant in the room and the reason this film took so long to get made. It is 209 minutes long (three hours and 29 minutes for those who don’t want to do the math). No studio was going to give a director $160 million to make a 3.5-hour drama starring old men, it was just never going to happen (which is why I think people need to be thanking Netflix more than they are). Does the film earn and justify its runtime? I mean no, there are some repetitive story beats and plenty of scenes where characters are simply sitting around talking. It is a lot to ask from a theater audience (I didn’t consume liquids after noon to prepare for the screening), which may be why Netflix was so willing to finance this project, they know folks at home can hit pause. There are a few slow parts, especially leading up to that third act, and then the film takes its time wrapping up. To give you context of the scale and duration: there are 320 scenes in this movie; the average film has around 60.
A few things I want to note but am running out of space and words to go into detail about: the score by Robbie Robertson (which I believe is original) is great, sometime carrying scene-by-scene without you even noticing, or luring you into submission with its nuance and soft trumpet beats, only to have a crime take place before you even realize it was being set up the whole time. Less subtle is Scorsese’s use of period songs in some awkward places. Longtime Scorsese editor Thelma Schoonmaker had a big task ahead of her, working through hours upon hours of footage and for the most part the film is cut together nicely. There are a few wonky shots but I would more likely attribute that to cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto and his handheld cameras than Schoonmaker’s editing skills. And the topics and themes tackled– legacy, fatherhood, male bonding–are heavy and in some ways symbolic of Scorsese’s own career.
“The Irishman” is the quintessential Martin Scorsese movie, for better or worse. It has the pacing of “Silence,” the dark humor of “The Wolf of Wall Street” and the mafia intrigue of “Goodfellas.” I am so glad I got to see Joe Pesci (in arguably the best performance of his career) on the big screen once in my life, as well as witness Robert De Niro and Al Pacino share a scene (and not be in something like “Jack and Jill” or “Dirty Grandpa”). Will “The Irishman” go down in history for more than its behind-the-scenes drama? Time will tell. But it’s one of those films that leaves you with so much to think about and has just so many things to digest (3.5 hours!) that it almost feels unfair to properly discuss it after one viewing; I mean, I’m over 1,200 words deep and have barely scratched the surface.