(R / 2O9 mins)
Overview: This biographical crime thriller follows Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) as he recalls his past years working for the Bufalino crime family.
Now older, the WWII veteran once again reflects on his most prolific hits and, in particular, considers his involvement with his good friend Jimmy Hoffa's disappearance in 1975.
Verdict: 'The Irishman' is a great movie, easily one of the best of the year, one of the best of the great Martin Scorsese’s career — and all anyone wants to talk about is Marvel movies.
That’s too bad. Because the merits of this film considerably outweigh self-indulgent debates about whether someone thinks 'Ant-Man' qualifies as cinema.
Who cares? Like what you like. Don’t like what you don’t.
But love “The Irishman.” It’s brilliant.
Yes, it’s Martin Scorsese making a mob movie, sort of. And he re-teams with Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci (with Al Pacino thrown in as icing in a very expensive cake).
If you’re hoping for a thrill ride like 'Goodfellas,' however, you’ll be disappointed, although that’s the only way you could be.
Instead you get a lonely old man’s meditation on life and loss, by which I don’t mean Scorsese. No, it’s about Frank Sheeran, played by De Niro. He’s the Irishman of the title, a truck driver turned mobster who eventually serves as union boss Jimmy Hoffa’s bodyguard, enforcer, head-cracker, whatever.
The film is based on Charles Brandt’s book “I Heard You Painted Houses,” which is a much better title — when one of the characters utters that phrase I couldn’t suppress a smile. (Brush up on your mob lingo.)
Pacino — he’s been in a couple of pretty decent mob pictures himself — plays Hoffa, brash and fearless and not a little reckless.
Pesci is Russell Bufalino, a mob boss who quietly goes about his often deadly business in a matter-of-fact manner. Again, if you’re looking for Pesci’s Tommy DeVito from 'Goodfellas' (“You think I’m funny?”) rent it. This isn’t that.
Yes, as you’ve doubtless heard, Scorsese uses digital de-aging technology to make them all look younger at various points in the film. It’s odd but not off-putting, and it doesn’t take you out of the movie. Whatever is going on on the surface, there is some tremendous acting going on underneath.
The film is structured somewhat oddly — a framing device within a framing device. One of its joys is its celebration of Scorsese’s genius. Remember the long tracking shot at the Copacabana in 'Goodfellas'?
Here he creates another, only this time it’s into the nursing home where Sheeran is whiling away the end of his life. For whatever reason, he has decided to tell an unseen visitor the story of is life.
This gives way to another story, about a long, excruciating car ride to a fateful wedding, with Sheeran driving Bufalino and their wives over a few days. Sheeran uses this as a way to trace the events of his life.
If the details were different, the overall arc would be mundane; as if to emphasize the point, Sheeran is feted at a banquet later in life. It’s pretty regular gold-watch stuff — except for the privately issued threats and warnings in corners of the room that lead in only one direction.
Sheeran is a loyal soldier, to a surprising degree. Part of that surprise is learning to whom he’s loyal. Not his family, really — he ignores his wife and four daughters for long stretches.
His daughter, Peggy (Anna Paquin, who says about 10 words in the whole movie), won’t have anything to do with him. (She loves Hoffa but is creeped out by Bufalino, despite the latter’s lifelong queasy efforts to make her like him.)
Yes, women are underrepresented here — it’s a boy’s club. If there’s a saving grace, it’s not really a club anyone would want to belong to.
Impeccably shot by cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto — some shots look and feel like washed-out photos from a long-forgotten family album that maybe no one wanted to find — the film is infused with melancholy.
It doesn’t glorify the mob life. It makes it seem mundane.
If Henry Hill was a rockstar mobster in 'Goodfellas' (sorry for the continual comparisons, but that’s the most obvious precedent, given the talent and themes involved), Sheeran is just a grunt.
Hits aren’t calculated events, for the most part. More likely they’re just a matter of walking up to someone and shooting them in the face. And everywhere else.
That said, at times Hoffa and Bufalino crop up in a lot of historical events, not quite mobster versions of Forrest Gump, but something like that.
You can probably guess most of them. Even then it doesn’t seem like part of a grand scheme, but a bunch of guys just going about their work. It just happens to be uniquely unsavory.
The acting is superb. Harvey Keitel shows up as a mob boss — you know he’ll be appropriately scary. Ditto Bobby Cannavale as a mid-level thug. But how about Ray Romano as a mob lawyer?
When tensions reach their height, there is Jesse Plemons as Hoffa’s stepson, explaining why he transported fish in the back seat of a car, to everyone’s disgust.
If the details of the story seem prosaic individually, together they’re not. They capture something, the elements of one man’s life. He worked adjacent to larger-than-life characters, if he himself was not.
He soldiered on — a quality that can be heroic in some characters, when they’re not guilt-free killers.
But 'The Irishman' is also a flawless weaving of those details. Scorsese turns them into something greater than the sum of the parts.
Scorsese has taken heat for saying he didn’t consider Marvel movies “cinema.” Again, argue among yourselves. But there is no doubt about this: 'The Irishman' is> cinema, of the highest order.