Every once in a while there comes along a movie where it seems like dissension or diversity of opinion is not allowed. You either have to like or hate it or you are not worthy of being called a true aficionado of film. This is how I felt going into the new film from Martin Scorsese, The Irishman. I was told it is a masterpiece (a word that has lost all meaning from over-use these days) and it is destined to win best picture at the Oscars. This may be the case, but unfortunately I walked away from the screening with very mixed feelings. I will do my best to explain why.
Let’s start out talking about the positives. First, the performances are outstanding. Of course, Robert Deniro as the lead character Frank Sheeran and Al Pacino as famous teamster leader Jimmy Hoffa are the standouts. However, there is also a lot of exemplary supporting work: Joe Pesci is excellent as Russell Bufalino. Ray Ramano is wonderful as mob attorney Bill Bufalino. The list could go on for days.
The Irishman is also wonderfully produced with beautiful period details from costumes, hair and makeup, to production design. As it’s a very long movie at 209 minutes these details helped immerse you thoroughly into in the story. I also think the de-aging technology is flawless. You forget Robert Deniro is 76 years old in the flashback scenes! There is no sense of uncanny valley or weirdness we’ve seen in other attempts such as in the last Pirates of the Caribbean film.
All of these positive aspects left me wrestling with my score for The Irishman. Unfortunately I had a lot of problems with the story and characters. As I mentioned, this is an over 3 hour film, which in and of itself isn’t a negative. However, the problem is the story does not sustain such a run-time and the pacing feels self-indulgent and ponderous. There are so many scenes that felt unnecessary or over-extended beyond what is needed for the plot
For example, there’s a scene where a character has a wet car and they joke about the wetness coming from a fish. “What kind of fish?” He doesn’t know. “How can he not know the fish?” I guess that is supposed to be interesting or funny? It certainly was neither for me. There are so many scenes like that where the narrative went nowhere or it told us things we already knew about our characters. So, unless you just love being in the world of mob movies you’re going to lose interest real quick.
A lot of the problems in the narrative come down to Frank as a character. At the beginning he talks about coming out of the army and how he learned to follow orders and not feel emotion about the horrors he was both seeing and participating in. This military-like approach becomes his philosophy for working with the mob. He’s workmanlike about his actions and doesn’t have much guilt or conflict about them.
In contrast, in The Godfather Michael’s character is actively fighting his destiny as head of the family. Practically the first scene of the film is him telling Kay he is not his family. Every part of the narrative then leads back to that core conflict. Will Michael give in and follow his father or will he stick to his morals and leave? This is an interesting character arc and it is reinforced by every other character’s choices throughout the film. Each person in the family learns their lives would be better if they just listened to the Don.
In The Irishman there is no such conflict. Up until the very end Frank does what he is told without any kind of moral crisis. I heard some claim the film is about introspection and questioning our legacy. I did not see such a theme. For most of the movie he’s a character who is perfectly happy to be a team player to fiery characters like Jimmy Hoffa.
Pacino as Hoffa is more interesting than Frank but we still don’t get much of a character arc from him. He ends the film at the same spot he began at, which would be fine, if I wasn’t asked to watch him not change for over 3 hours. And I know not all movies need someone to root for but with such a run-time shouldn’t we at least empathize with someone? Again, in The Godfather, we are rooting for Michael because his motivations begin so pure.
In my opinion, any good mafia movie should be at least slightly allegorical. The insular nature of the society makes it easy to weave metaphors about both our own society and the individual choices we make. However, for The Irishman I don’t understand what the allegory is? What are we supposed to learn from this mafia soldier? Even the most dramatic moment of the story is executed with little emotion or seeming moral conflict. It is not until the very end that we finally get a narrative of regret and contrition, which in my opinion wasn’t enough.
In the end, despite many strengths in performances and production, The Irishman is not a film I can recommend. As I said, the pacing is too ponderous and self-indulgent, the characters are too stagnant, and the story lacks an emotional punch. Other people clearly disagree, and that’s fine. If it sounds like something you’d enjoy I encourage you to go and see for yourself. It will soon be on Netflix so most people will be able to easily watch it at home. I hope you enjoy it more than I did.
4 out of 10