“The Irishman” (U.S. Rated R)
Cast: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Ray Romano
Genre: Crime Drama
Is it 2020 yet?
The calendar had suggested it was just the first week in December 2019 when I initially settled in to watch the new film, “The Irishman”. But surely several weeks have passed since then.
Yes, that’s a jab at the length of this marathon of a movie – the longest I’ve seen in many years. At three hours and 30 minutes, it’s longer than any of the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings flicks. It makes the faster-paced “Titanic”, at “just” three hours 15 minutes, almost seem like a short film. The only things I’ve seen that were longer: the epic 1959 version of “Ben-Hur” (3:44) and 1962’s “Lawrence of Arabia” (3:48), and the epic of all epics, “Gone with the Wind” of 1939 – a time in which I’m sure spending three hours and 58 minutes in a theater would have been a welcome respite from the outside world.
Why is “The Irishman” so long? Perhaps it’s because this is Netflix, which seems intent on getting everyone to stay home and “chill” (pardon the pun – although “The Irishman” will still be on long after most would have completed any “Netflix and chill” encounters!)
Netflix has been pulling out all the stops and approaching the hottest directors, writers and actors, luring them in with the promise of little to no interference, apparently. And you can sometimes hear these folks brag about this during press interviews. They’ll say insane things like, “I wanted to film a two-minute scene on Mars, and none of the studios would agree to it. But Netflix said ‘Sure, sounds great!’”. Or, “Sure, my last hit TV show was in the late ‘90s. But Netflix gave me a two-season commitment without seeing a pilot or even reading a script.”
And thus, Netflix has attracted the likes of Academy Award winning directors Alfonso Cuaron, The Coen Brothers and Guillermo del Toro, and powerhouse TV producers like Shonda Rimes and Ryan Murphy, budgets be damned.
Now add to that list Martin Scorsese, one of the greatest, most influential and most successful directors of our time, with an incredible body of work including “The Wolf of Wall Street”, “Goodfellas”, “Raging Bull”, “Taxi Driver”, “The Departed” and “Gangs of New York”, and so much more.
Where a traditional studio might probably say, “Hey, Marty, I don’t think we can get today’s low-attention-span audience to sit in a theater for nearly four hours without checking their Instagram pages, so let’s cut this down at least an hour”, Netflix and its shackle-free approach says, “Only three and a half hours, Mr. Scorsese?”
With “The Irishman”, the famed director is joined by some of his favorite actors, including Oscar-winner Robert De Niro, who, as one of the film’s producers, was instrumental in getting this project off the ground.
It’s the ninth time Scorsese has directed De Niro, with the latter having won one of his two Oscars (and his only win in the Best Actor category) in Scorsese’s boxing classic “Raging Bull”.
Also, here, Oscar-winner Joe Pesci, who received his first Academy Award nomination in that same boxing film and won his only Oscar in the Scorsese mob classic “Goodfellas”.
Another Scorsese fave, Harvey Keitel is here, along with a good portion of the cast from the Prohibition-era TV mob drama “Boardwalk Empire”, on which Scorsese was an executive producer. Plus, we’ve got almost everyone who’s still alive and has appeared in a mafia-themed movie or TV show in the last five decades.
That includes Oscar-winner Al Pacino, who knows a thing or two about mobster movies, having starred in all three editions of “The Godfather”. Shockingly, “The Irishman” marks the first time in his long career he’s ever collaborated with Scorsese.
There are a few women in the film, including Anna Paquin. But there’s not much for the ladies to do. They’re mainly there as window-dressing, and stand around to smoke cigarettes, and have very few actual lines. This is definitely a boy’s club!
Based on the 2004 book “I Heard You Paint Houses”, which seeks to answer one of the greatest questions and mysteries of the 20th Century, “Who killed Jimmy Hoffa?”, the book and now the movie are drawing much controversy as not everyone agrees with or supports the suggested claims and conclusions.
De Niro plays the title character. His Frank Sheeran begins as a truck driver in the 1950s, and gets involved with Russell Bufalino (Pesci) and his Pennsylvania crime family. As Sheeran climbs the ranks to become a top hit man, he also goes to work for Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino) – the influential leader of the powerful Teamster labor union, who had ties to organized crime.
So, let’s get this in again: “The Irishman” is too long! But too long definitely doesn’t mean bad. It is quite well done. The pacing is leisurely, but it would be unfair to call it slow. Instead, the pacing imparts the sense that this is a well-crafted production, helmed by a mature and steady hand.
The unnecessary length likely comes as a result of some Scorseseisms: entertaining scenes that add color and further explore the motivations of characters, but that are essentially 15 to 20 minutes or so that don’t necessarily advance the story all that much.
And while the film is supposed to be about Sheeran, most of us are either here for the Jimmy Hoffa storyline, or to see Al Pacino interacting with Robert De Niro, and that doesn’t seem to happen until, at the earliest, the end of the first hour. All contributing to that long running time.
Also, De Niro, who apparently is indeed of mixed Irish-Italian descent, has always looked exceptionally Italian, and thus, donning blue contact lenses to become the very Irish Sheeran, De Niro, at times, appears demon-possessed.
This happens especially when the film’s massive budget works its magic to digitally age and then de-age the actors, as the story hops back and forth through several time periods each decade beginning in the ‘50s. (Reports say this has been Scorsese’s most expensive movie to date, with estimates suggesting it cost anywhere from $125 to above $150 million.)
Thankfully those costly visual effects – outside of De Niro’s snake eyes – look relatively decent, and make the similar process used in the Ang Lee/Will Smith film “Gemini Man” earlier this year look like it was handled by small children.
But what makes “The Irishman” standout is the performances – some of the best you’ll see in a film this year. The standouts are of course the big three: De Niro, Pacino and Pesci, each in their best roles in years.
Pesci delivers one his most subtle and effective performances ever. After building a career as being the loudest, brashest person in most of his films, Pesci shows he’s mastered the art of silence, of saying so much by not saying a single word. His face is so expressive, we know exactly what he’s thinking before he opens his mouth. This is among the strongest supporting performances of 2019.
Then there’s the big two. It’s always headline news when De Niro and Pacino share screen time. And it hasn’t happened much at all or even lasted long, even when they’re in the same movie. With “The Irishman”, you can get your fill, and for seemingly hours!
What’s most remarkable, though, is how these brilliant performances, from two of the most famous method actors alive today, are so very different.
Pacino aims to become Hoffa, portraying him as the over-the-top, larger-than-life figure he was known to be. That is indeed a sight to behold.
De Niro, on the other hand, tasked with playing a much less-known individual, brings to life a most unusual hitman. He’s able to get the audience to feel sympathy for Sheeran, as he appears almost pained every time he’s called on to “paint a house”.
These are three actors, and one director, operating on all cylinders. They’ve put all they’ve learned over these many decades on display in this one epic film.
That makes “The Irishman” a must-see for anyone who is a fan of Scorsese or anyone in this talented cast, especially De Niro, Pacino and Pesci. And even if you think you’re not a fan of any of them, but love great storytelling and great acting, this is worth seeing.
If you love mobster movies and conflicted characters, if you are a history buff and love meticulous attention to time-appropriate details and if you’re interested in politics and have a challenge understanding conflicts of interest, you definitely should check it out.
All you’ll need is to carve out the rest of the year.
• Dwight Strachan is the host/producer of “Morning Blend” on Guardian Radio and station manager. He is a television producer and writer, and an avid TV history and film buff. Email firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on twitter @morningblend969.
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