No motion picture of 2019 has caused me more personal anxiety than Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, which premiered on Netflix this week.
This is not, it should be noted, because I am a Scorsese “fanboy.” I have been enthusiastically engaged by the director’s work for almost fifty years; at age 60, then, I am far too old to be a “fanboy.” And I do not feel I have any obligation to answer for or even consider those male Scorsese enthusiasts younger than myself whose fulsomeness of praise now inspires McSweeney’s pieces by young women alienated by their rantings. (All right, only just this one piece.) I don’t think I’ve ever even seen a Scorsese movie on a date, although, like Marty’s ex-wife and longtime producer Barbara De Fina, I roll my eyes at the characterization of much of the filmmaker’s work as “guy movies.” I did see Raging Bull with my mother, because she wanted to. A Catholic girl from Fort Lee, New Jersey, she gasped at the specificity of the crucifixes on the walls of various characters’ houses. In most other respects our viewing of the movie was mildly uncomfortable. She liked it fine, overall. “Robert De Niro is really something,” she not inaccurately noted. Anyway.
No, The Irishman caused me anxiety because I’m writing a book about Goodfellas. Not just for the hell of it; I have a real publisher (Hanover Square Press) and publication date (next fall) and everything. You’ll hear more about it when it’s closer to hitting Amazon pre-order and bookstores. And The Irishman has been having, in various ways, a big effect on my process. It’s affected the availability of some interview subjects, for instance. There’s also the fact that The Irishman is, as Goodfellas is, a gangster picture, and a gangster picture based on a non-fiction book, and a gangster picture starring Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci. One could say it’s practically on a continuum with Goodfellas. (To the extent that a few loud folks on Twitter — including an unusually large number of television comedy writers, from what I can tell —have dragged on Scorsese in the wake of his comments about MCU movies, grousing “oh here’s Scorsese with another stunningly original gangster movie with De Niro, Pesci, and Pacino, where does he get off saying Marvel movies are all the same.” Never mind that Al Pacino has never been in a Scorsese movie before. Never mind that gangster movies do not constitute the plurality of Scorsese’s output. Never mind Kundun, The Age of Innocence, The Last Temptation of Christ, Silence —these do not count, you see, because they’re snoozefests. Never mind Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore — that doesn’t count because it was made before they were born, and nothing from before they were born counts. OK, Boomer? And so on. These are very serious people obviously.)
So in the months and then weeks and then days before The Irishman screened for the first time, I worried: “What if it’s Not Good?” It wouldn’t affect Goodfellas as such, but it also would create a rather different After-Goodfellas narrative that I had in place, one that would not have suffered a whit had Scorsese just foregone making a gangster movie and done Killers of the Flower Moon with DiCaprio instead. (That’s his next film now, and reportedly De Niro is also in it.)
Now because Scorsese sometimes makes questionable films (we’ve discussed Cape Fear here, have we not?) but does not as a rule make overtly bad ones, chances that The Irishman would be Not Good were pretty slim. Or rather they seem so now, in hindsight, with the movie’s Rotten Tomatoes rating standing tall at 96%.
But the movie was in many respects risky. Its time frame is greater than that of any Scorsese picture, even Goodfellas, spanning from World War II to the early 2000s. Rather than cast younger actors to play the principal roles in the sequences set far in the past, Scorsese and Netflix opted to use a digital-de-aging technology. This has worked a treat in short sequences, most notably in Marvel movies. See Michael Douglas in Ant Man, for instance. (Scorsese looked at these pictures when researching tech houses for the job; it was in this context that he was asked about his opinion of MCU-type movies, to which he responded that they didn’t constitute his idea of cinema. Hoo boy.) But how would it work in a realistic drama in which the leads, all in their 70s, have to look like they’re in their 50s for much of the movie?
Here’s another thing: Charles Brandt’s book, I Heard You Paint Houses, from which the screenplay by Steve Zaillian is derived (and if you watch the movie, it seems throughout that its actual title is in fact I Heard You Paint Houses), while a gripping yarn, is not as good a book as Wiseguy, the 1985 Nicholas Pileggi account of Henry Hill from which Goodfellas derives. Houses is the story of Frank Sheeran, a union guy with a criminal streak, who late in his life decided to recount his life and murderous misdeeds to Brandt, a onetime prosecutor. Brandt’s book isn’t as well-assembled or well-written as Pileggi’s; it doesn’t have an index, or a section on sources.
And yes, some of Sheeran’s stories, including the central tale of how he befriended and cherished labor leader Jimmy Hoffa and then killed him in cold blood, may strike some as far-fetched. Indeed, prior to the release of The Irishman, the e-zine Slate, which makes a specialty of telling its readers that they’re doing everything wrong, published a piece by crime reporter Bill Tonelli saying all of Sheeran’s stories were made up. This may be true. What’s definitely true is that true-crime writers, especially male true-crime writers, are catty and competitive and always claiming some other guy is full of shit.
In any event, veracity isn’t a huge concern, because like Goodfellas, The Irishman is a fiction film adapted from ostensible non-fiction. But reading Brandt’s sometimes windy, ramshackle account, book, it’s hard to see the movie in it.
It will likely not surprise you, though, to learn that I watched all three hours and thirty minutes of The Irishman in a state of cinematic rapture. The movie is dynamic, intelligent, lively, frequently funny, and genuinely, shudderingly tragic. Several people who saw it before I did — folks in Scorsese’s cinematic circle, including legend Thelma Schoonmaker, who edited Goodefellas and The Irishman and almost everything in between — semi-warned me “Just remember, it’s not Goodfellas.” And The Irishman is not Goodfellas, but let’s face it, it’s got more in common with Goodfellas than it does with When Harry Met Sally.
But it is also more than Goodfellas in its emotional revelation. The half-realization on the part of the soon-to-die Sheeran, played with magisterial nuance by De Niro, that he’s a cipher, and that he has killed for nothing, is one of the most devastating gifts of cinema as has been delivered to us in any decade.
Yes, this is a movie by old men, about old men, maybe even for old men. But if you think its bell doesn’t toll for thee, well, lucky you I guess.
My rapture was accompanied by relief. My book’s narrative with Goodfellas at one end (with The Godfather waving from behind) and The Irishman at the other is now canon, practically. The de-aging works. Not in the way many had expected or hoped for it to work. This digital technology, which required a special three-lens camera for most of the shoot, can perform wonders with what it captures. But what it captures is the thing it has to work with. In other words: Robert De Niro’s head today, blockier than it was around the time of The Godfather Part II and Taxi Driver, doesn’t have that lean, sharply angled jaw. So the World War II Sheeran of The Irishman doesn’t either. Scorsese and company did something very smart with the 1940s and ‘50s scenes — the color grading and such has a Maxfield Parrish, memory-play aspect to it; its concurrent distancing effect makes blocky-head Sheeran more credible in its opposition to our expectation of a particularly sleeker De Niro. And the middle-aged sequences are seamlessly engrossing even if slightly Brechtian, the actors’ body movements betraying a creakiness not reflected in their faces.
And screenwriter Steve Zaillian deserves more credit for his adaptation than he’s gotten. His structuring of the story, which I’m told stayed in place throughout the editing process, is marvelous, centered around a significant road trip that creates a launching pad for myriad flashbacks, framed as a whole by the scenes of Sheeran in a nursing home. It’s a magnificent distillation and elevation of Brandt’s book.
I remain anxious in general. That’s the constant state of someone in the middle of a book. You should try it some time. But about The Irishman? Not anymore. Best movie of the year.
Veteran critic Glenn Kenny reviews new releases at RogerEbert.com, the New York Times, and, as befits someone of his advanced age, the AARP magazine. He blogs, very occasionally, at Some Came Running and tweets, mostly in jest, at @glenn__kenny.
The post How I Finally Stopped Worrying About ‘The Irishman’ appeared first on Decider.