At 209 minutes it’s tempting to split up Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman into multiple sittings. And there were times watching it I almost did. But I’m a firm believer in overall pacing, and without watching the entire 3.5 hour gangster epic straight through, you risk losing some of its narrative intent and power. His first effort since 2016’s Silence, Scorsese and veteran screenwriter Steven Zaillian (Gangs of New York, Moneyball) have crafted an intricately made gangster epic that ensures it draws comparison to earlier Scorsese gangster epics, especially Goodfellas and Casino.
And in many ways, it does so admirably. However, the extra runtime, and streaming nature of Netflix, it can be difficult to appreciate the grandeur that Scorsese is attempting. Sometimes you really can have too much of a good time, and, in some cases, less is more.
Based on Charles Brandt’s book “I Heard You Paint Houses”, the movie follows Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), a real-life Irish-American truck driver turned mob hitman and also the right hand man to the crooked Teamsters union leader, Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). “I heard you paint houses” is the first thing Hoffa says to Sheeran, the “paint” referring to the blood on the walls after a slaying. The Irishman recreates a long-lost period of transformational history, one told entirely through Sheeran’s eyes over the span of some two decades and then some.
A big portion of the movie makes use of the increasingly popular CGI de-aging technology, which is supposed to make older actors look young again. Almost ironically, given Scorsese’s recent comments about the differences between “cinema” and Marvel blockbusters, we’ve seen this technique used extensively in the latter’s recent films to de-age recognizable actors like Kurt Russel in Guardians of the Galaxy 2 and Samuel Jackson in Captain Marvel.
Somehow the de-aging process is never as flattering as the aging process. Probably because we actually know what De Niro looked like twenty years ago (thanks to a sizable cinematic record from Scorsese alone) our brains must stubbornly reconcile this visual mix-match if we’re to enjoy what’s on the screen right now. The same goes for both Pacino and Pesci, actors that have been familiar to film fans for so long that any attempt to recreate their famous faces will likely come up against the uncanny valley.
One of the benefits of the tech is how it allows filmmakers play with more non-linear narratives, or cast actors in roles that fits them, regardless of their age. Here, Scorsese jumps between current and past versions of Sheeran, Bufalino and Hoffa so much that it becomes easier to accept the imperfections of their CGI de-aged makeovers than it might otherwise have been. Almost.
And keeping with the era, Scorsese teaches his audience about 20th century figures imprinted on those from his generation, but who recent viewers have little or no working knowledge of. But in this area, he fails to recognize that very disparity, letting certain events go confusingly unexplained. Sheeran narrates the entire story, apparently to provide first-hand knowledge (and thus authenticity) to his account, but this has the effect of rendering some viewers as outsiders. We shouldn’t have to keep checking Wikipedia to know who’s who and what’s what, especially as the film often doles out written character bios on screen for some (but not all) of its massive roster.
Scorsese utilizes a slow burn to increase the rising tensions between the two parties, but we don’t really feel it until things ultimately come to a head. The dealings and conflict between Hoffa and the mob are somewhat unclear, and oftentimes not nearly big enough to justify the hostility and concern of the latter. In fact, many of the mob hits dramatized in The Irishman seem to be catalyzed by nothing, which would seem to validate claims that some of Sheeran’s testimony was made up.
In reality, what actually happened to Hoffa has never been “officially” resolved, with several people taking credit for his infamous “disappearance”. At times, playing down the severity of events only taints the plausibility of other events. What happens when your already unreliable narrator becomes even less reliable?
I often cite Scorsese’s 1990 mob masterpiece, Goodfellas, as my favorite gangster movie. But where Goodfellas helps you understand those individuals who got sucked into the mob, while simultaneously making you never wish to join them yourself, The Irishman takes a more straightforward look at the world of organized crime as the movie simply shows us a sequence of events that take place. As a result, the immense pressure and stakes aren’t always palpable. It’s the same kind of presentation that makes the first Godfather movie so underwhelming for me (direct all complaints to management, please).
But the Godfather approach in The Irishman leaves much to be desired as far as character development, at least with its titular character. That’s not something you want to feel after spending three and a half hours with them. However, the final 30 minutes focus on a more personal side of an older, enfeebled Sheeran forced to deal with family issues and the back nine of his life, which is genuinely moving.
Scorsese assembles an ensemble cast with superb performances across the board. If you can get past the famously Italian-American De Niro playing a tough guy of Irish descent, then he does a great job as a no-nonsense hitman. The veteran actor delivers a masterclass in conveying subtitle emotion without ever over-emoting. Pacino is at his best as the short-tempered Hoffa. Through Pacino’s nuanced performance we garner sympathy for Hoffa in a way we don’t expect. He’s a crooked man, but also a highly proud one that respectably never kowtows to the mafia or lets them run him over.
The real draw, for me at least, is Joe Pesci, who comes out of semi-retirement to play Russell Bufalino, the head of a Pennsylvania crime family. Pesci isn’t his usual squirrelly, hair-triggered self. Here, he’s much calmer and subdued, but still just as intimidating as ever.
For many, the real joy of The Irishman will be seeing this trio of cinematic royalty back on the screen in a gangster movie directed by Martin Scorsese. In this area, at least, they won’t be disappointed. We grow to value the dueling relationships between not just Sheeran and Hoffa, but also Sheeran and Russell against the tide of history and circumstances each helped create by their own actions. This is an epic saga that slow-builds its world and characters well, covering a lot of ground in a relatively “short” amount of time. However, the movie seems to place actual events at a higher importance than the storytelling itself, making it difficult to focus on, much less appreciate, the larger picture Scorsese obviously sees and wishes to share with us.