New York Film Festival Review: “The Irishman”

To say that a reunion of Martin Scorsese with Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci has been eagerly anticipated (at least in certain corners) is an understatement.  However long it took, the men have come back together, they have added Al Pacino to the mix, and their new creation, “The Irishman” is a three-and-a-half hour tour de force.  It is a mafia movie for the ages.  It is also a little unwieldy, but the stupendous performances put in by the three men, as well as their co-stars (including a great Ray Romano) make the good heavily outweigh the bad.

De Niro is the film’s center, playing the titular Irishman, Frank Sheeran, a not-quite-on-the-level truck driver who becomes one of the Philadelphia mob’s go-to guys and a great friend of Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino).  Pesci is Russell Bufalino, Sheeran’s boss and good friend; his mentor, the man who helps lead him down this road.

One of the most amazing things about the film is that these three men, all acting titans, are on the absolute top of their game in this film.  Each one is compelling.  Each one delivers something mesmerizing.  Each one is more than worthy of awards consideration.  This reviewer would personally choose Pesci as the best of the three,  with his generally quiet gravitas, but it is some very fine hair splitting to get there.  Pacino offers up an unparalleled anger as Hoffa without ever devolving into camp.  And De Niro… well, De Niro takes Sheeran through decades of life giving off a sort of deep felt emotion that pours through the screen.

It is this decades-long look at Sheeran and his life that makes the movie so powerful and unwieldy at the same time.  If the movie’s narrative thrust deals with Hoffa, his influence on Sheeran, and the way Sheeran is pulled between Bufalino and Hoffa; and it is, then Hoffa takes an awfully long time to put in his fist appearance.  Until the famed leader of the Teamsters appears, it is not clear why Sheeran is telling the audience some of the stories that he’s telling or where the story is going.  Once Hoffa pops up, things become much more evident and the film finds its through line, but before that, one thinks that “The Irishman” might just be a bunch of side stories.

A portion of the film’s power comes from the fact that it wouldn’t be so bad if it were just side stories, and at the same time it’s only better once the main thrust is revealed.  Whether we’re watching De Niro as a younger man or an older one, we want to see him as Sheeran.  We want to know how this man got to the point where we see him – telling his story in a nursing home.

In the end, of course, that is what the film is about.  It is a tale about this man who lives not in a morally gray area, but a morally black one.  It is about a man who makes the choice to do the wrong thing enough that it soon becomes the only choice he ever makes.  It costs him.  He may be a big man with a lot of friends for much of his life, but it doesn’t matter, he ends up alone.  We all end up alone, and when that comes, we have to be happy with the choices we’ve made.  Is Sheeran?

By and large, the actors succeed at offering up the same characters at different stages in life.  Some of this is done through the magic of computers, and while there may be a moment or two that look off, the only distracting thing is wondering how De Niro and company might actually look today – which time period is the real them?  A bigger  problem than the computer enhanced visuals is the single instance when De Niro’s movements as Sheeran beating someone up appear far more stiff than they ought for Sheeran’s age at that time.  It is easily forgivable, but remains an awkward scene.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about the movie is the humor.  “The Irishman” is indeed a tragedy and it is bloody at times, but it is also deeply, hugely, funny.  There isn’t just one laugh or maybe two, it is full of them.  In keeping with the film’s tone, the humor tends to be quite dark, but it is a wonderful addition to the proceedings.

Although it is being released by Netflix, “The Irishman” is set to have a limited theatrical window and it absolutely should be hunted out at theaters.  Yes, it is quite long, but it is a work of masters and ought to be watched without the distractions which home viewing allows.

four and a half stars

photo credit:  Netflix

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