Film Review: “The Irishman”

When I was in the 7th grade, I still bought into the old lie of “the book is always better than the movie.” I had no choice, then, but to read Charles Brandt’s I Heard You Paint Houses, soon to be adapted for the screen by Martin Scorsese. I had just discovered Scorsese’s movies months earlier— the prospect of a crime drama collaboration between the director and some of his most prized actors coming to a theater near me was enough to keep preteen me up at night.

Little did I know that I would have to wait until now, my first year of graduate school, to really see this film come to fruition. Funding issues and Scorsese’s typically singular vision forced The Irishman into over a decade of gestation. Going into the film, I didn’t know whether to expect a a piece that seemed to have benefited from such a long production process or one that sagged under its own weight.

The answer ends up being a mix a both. The film opens with a geriatric Frank Sheeran (played by Robert De Niro), the film’s titular Irishman, sitting in a nursing home as his voiceover turns into a direct address to the camera. The older Sheeran narrates much of the film, framed as a flashback into the earlier days of his involvement with the Teamsters, and then the mob, and then a combination of the two.

The voiceover actually works weirdly well in this movie—De Niro delivers it with all of the uncertainty and emotional baggage (or sometimes lack thereof) of the older Sheeran, making it feel more like a genuine reflection on the past than the disembodied vox dei it usually ends up being.

Of greater importance to many who watch the film will be its highly-publicized digital de-aging of the De Niro, Joe Pesci, and Al Pacino for many scenes. Simply put, De Niro’s looks bad—in his youngest form, which has him playing Sheeran in his 20s, he looks more like a character from The Polar Express than an actual human being. Scorsese didn’t seem to take into account the De Niro doesn’t exactly talk or move like a young man anymore, making the minutiae of many scenes just as clunky as the visuals—it’s frankly impossible to see De Niro as a young man buddying up to an older mafioso played by Bobby Cannavale, an actor nearly three decades his junior.

Admittedly, this shot is more quickly paced than most of the film.

Pesci, playing a Philadelphia mob boss, and Pacino, playing Teamster head Jimmy Hoffa, fare much better. Whereas I breathed a sigh of relief by the time we got to see regularly De Niro’s natural face onscreen, Pesci and Pacino simply play their characters as older men most of the time. It also helps that their faces seem to be better suited to the digital process than De Niro’s.

Thankfully, the de-aging is an extremely small part of the overall experience. The film’s runtime (in the state I saw it) was a cool 209 minutes, meaning there’s a whole movie’s worth of scenes of the actors just as their older selves. With a film that long, the importance of the actors’ appearances gives way early on to the might of their performances.

De Niro rises to the challenge, especially in his older scenes. Pesci is the clear standout of the three, with a cool sociopathic detachment that often runs up against his desire to be seen as an uncle by Sheeran’s daughter. His failures and triumphs incite blink-and-you’ll-miss-them facial responses, making his performance by far the film’s subtlest and most interesting. Pacino’s performance will be awfully familiar to anyone who’s seen the man act in the 21st century. His usual histrionics are coupled with a timing that always just seems a little off—making the chemistry between him and De Niro significantly more awkward than it should be.

Therein lies perhaps the film’s greatest overall failure. The Irishman spends three-and-a-half hours centering in on characters whose relationships are far from novel and who themselves aren’t especially interesting to begin with. De Niro’s always-disinterested Sheeran lacks the confused moral compass of a Henry Hill-type and Pacino’s Hoffa is missing a degree of self-awareness or doubt that prevents him from any interesting introspection. As engaging as the film’s editing and cinematography often are, they’re too often employed to depict uninteresting conversations between fairly static characters.

You can see what I mean about the de-aging.

The film itself, though, is far from a failure. A carefully-paced and exceptionally pensive final act gives the movie the teeth it seems to have been searching for all along. While much of the film’s middle 90 minutes wallows in overlong scenes with questionable utility to the film’s plot, it finishes with a disarming lack of bravura that will stick with most viewers for a long time to come. It’s a seriousness I wish Scorsese had applied to some of the film’s earlier scenes, when gags about frozen fish or arriving late seem to drag on for longer than some films last.

This is certainly not the film 7th grade Harrison would’ve wanted to see. The ascendancy of Sheeran to Hoffa’s right hand man is oddly abrupt and bereft of Scorsese’s usual energy and style, and the film’s admittedly gruesome violence is mostly drowned out by hours of shot-reverse shot conversation scenes.

Scorsese, 76, is simply addressing things he wasn’t concerned with addressing as a younger filmmaker. In The Irishman, many characters are introduced with a freeze frame and text explaining when and how they died (read: were murdered). That, coupled with the at-death’s-door Sheeran narrating, makes the next life a looming theme in what would otherwise be an unusually talky crime drama. This film is far from a masterpiece, but it does offer a new perspective on the marginal characters Scorsese has spent his career observing: they have to deal with death just like the rest of us, and, like the rest of us, they don’t know how.

The Irishman

HIGHLIGHTS: Pesci’s performance, the final half an hour or so, the editing and camerawork.

LOWLIGHTS: Overlong conversation scenes, meandering plot, Pacino’s character and performance (most of the time).

VERDICT: B-/B

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Haver of opinions. Lover of some things, hater of others.

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