As evidenced by his sprawling mobster/Teamster epic, ‘The Irishman’, Martin Scorcese still has interesting stories to tell. In this case, it’s the long, sordid tale of Frank Sheeran, the titular unmade man who rose through the ranks of both the mafia and the trucking union as a stoic middleman and unabashed, unapologetic, workman thug. Throughout his life he went from a WWII soldier and meat truck driver to rubbing elbows with the upper echelons of Philly gangsters, to forming an intimate bond with none other than Jimmy Hoffa himself. All of Scorcese’s trademarks are on display in this 3 1/2 hour Netflix production, overcast with a meditative tone that effectively simulates the passage of time and the trials of aging.
‘The Irishman’ has been marked by years of fanfare and strife – tales of a fraught journey to bring it to screen, despite featuring not only a reunion with Scorcese’s ‘Goodfellas’ and ‘Raging Bull’ stars Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesci, but touting the first time the acclaimed director has worked with Al Pacino. Scorcese had been interested for some time in adapting Charles Brandt’s ‘I Heard You Paint Houses’ as a showcase for frequent collaborator DeNiro to play Sheeran, the FBI’s chief suspect in the disappearance of famed Teamster boss, Jimmy Hoffa, here played by an entertainingly rowdy Al Pacino. The Teamsters have historically been notoriously linked to the Italian mafia, supported by their intimidation tactics. In ‘The Irishman’ they are represented mainly by Joe Pesci’s Russell Bufalino, but the film features a cacophony of familiar faces playing mob bosses of various levels, from Bobby Cannavale to Harvey Keitel and an unrecognizable Domenick Lombardozzi (of ‘The Wire’ fame) in old man makeup. Even Ray Romano shows up as the family lawyer. It’s hard to imagine this project having a hard time getting support from the major studios, but it nonetheless was passed by all, likely due to its hefty price tag. Instead, it was picked up by Netflix in their continued play for prestige and recognition.
While the film entices because it contains so many repeat Scorcese players and a subject matter that seems rife for the director of a number of gangster classics, it truly surprises in structure, tone, and performance. At the heart is DeNiro’s Frank, a burly, hulking, yet serene presence. He mainly serves as a committed, dedicated, unquestioning middleman between Pacino’s headstrong Hoffa and his string-pulling bosses. Pesci in particular, comes out of self-imposed retirement to portray a character that’s the antithesis of the hothead roles that made him a star. He gives a revelatory performance of unassuming power with a deep undercurrent of the inevitability of an unscrupulous life. Pacino does Pacino doing Hoffa and absolutely captivates, taking over the scenes he’s in, once he’s introduced an hour into the movie. It’s a testament to these fine actors, that despite all the hoopla over their coming together in the twilight of their careers, they truly inhabit the roles, creating an experience that washes over an audience who just see them as their characters.
Just when it seems like ‘The Irishman’ is a vibrant tale of progressive power grabs and litigious setbacks, it strikingly becomes something more transcendent. It’s unique structure of a flashback inside a flashback inside a flashback gives way to a few languid scenes of contemplation. So much of the film prior to its last third is defined by quick bursts of information, not unlike some of Scorcese’s rollicking best, if at times here a little too pat and tidy. After taking its time parsing through the history of organized crime and unions from the 50s into the 70s, and how these men were involved, the film grinds itself into poignant sequences of drawn out meditations on choice and destiny. It’s here where ‘The Irishman’ becomes something much more artistically and thematically challenging as it’s characters wrestle with legacy and the meaninglessness of life . . .
Directed By: Martin Scorcese
Written By: Steven Zaillian
Running Time: 209 min
* * * 1/2 (out of 4 stars) -OR- A-