At The Movies: ” The Irishman”
By Noah Gittell
Life is long, and so is “The Irishman.” The highly-anticipated reunion of director Martin Scorsese with actors Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesci comes in at a languid three and a half hours, a running time made possibly only by a special arrangement. The film was produced by Netflix, which is currently presenting it in select theaters. On November 27, it hits the streaming service, which creates a real dilemma: “The Irishman” is a singular cinematic event that deserves to be seen on the biggest screen possible. Then again, bathroom breaks are nice.
If you have the bladder for it, opt for the big screen. “The Irishman” is the kind of film you might be tempted to step away from to clear your head, but you shouldn’t. It gains cumulative power as it goes, and its stunningly bleak finale is the sum of all that has come before. This isn’t the Scorsese of “Goodfellas,” “Casino,” or even “Wolf of Wall Street,” whose long runtimes are obscured by indulging in its characters fast-paced lifestyle. Its rewards require investment and patience.
Its protagonist, Joe Sheeran (Robert DeNiro) is a union truck driver who, over the course of three decades, rises through the ranks of both the Italian mafia and Teamsters union, but unlike Henry Hill or Jordan Belfort, he’s not in it for the party. As played with great understatement by DeNiro, Sheeran is no more complex than a good soldier. He served in World War II, and the mindset persisted. He does his job as a mob enforcer – which includes a fair bit of whacking – with the utmost discretion and professionalism, and Scorsese stages the hits with little fanfare. Even the blood splattered on the wall – the original title of the film was “I Heard You Paint Houses,” which is Mafia code for murder – feels like a more muted shade of red.
Instead, the film hinges on its relationships, particularly that of Sheeran and Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), who meets Sheeran and hires him to be his bodyguard, confidante, and best friends. The onscreen pairing of two of cinema’s greatest actors is tantalizing, but instead of opting for fireworks, the actors opt for a slow burn that better serves the story. Their commonalities – and between DeNiro and Pesci, who plays Philadelphia mob boss Russell Bufalino – make for a natural ease and chemistry, which is vital to the film’s success: This is a story about men of a certain generation who never learned to communicate – in key moments, Sheeran cannot warn Hoffa about impending events because he simply lacks the ability to really talk to him – and the actors’ shared history keeps the story rich with this meaning even when the film itself gets distracted.
“The Irishman” is torn between its emotional beats, which come to devastating fruition in its final hour, and Scorsese’s desire to teach a history lesson. “Back then, there was nobody in this country who didn’t know who Jimmy Hoffa was,” Sheeran tell us at one point, and too often the film falters by over-explaining Hoffa’s role in various historic events, including his rumored connection to the Kennedy assassination. There is a little too much “Forrest Gump” in “The Irishman,” and cutting these elements would have saved time and kept us more closely tethered to the real story, which is how these men were both uplifted and ultimately doomed by their ability to keep their mouths shut.
With its melancholic tone and unsentimental view of life, it’s a film that could only be made at this point in Scorsese’s career, approaching his sixth decade of work and feeling contemplative about his own career. Ironically, the thing that almost dooms the film is the one area in which Scorsese sought to break new ground, his misguided use of de-aging CGI present in the film’s first two hours. Used primarily to turn a 76-year-old DeNiro into a thirtysomething, the technology robs the great actor of his humanity. In the shadows, DeNiro is passable, but in well-lit scenes, he looks more like a videogame character than a human being, and throughout the film, the technology fails to account for his old-man posture. Perhaps this is why the film really comes together in the final ninety minutes, when DeNiro is playing something close to his age. It’s worth the wait, and the potential bladder damage, to get there.
My Rating: See it in the Theater