The Irishman

The Irishman ★★★½


On the one hand, knee-jerk hostility toward very long movies annoys me (almost as much as does knee-jerk deference toward very long movies), and I'm especially wary of suggesting that every sprawling, ambitious narrative project should really have been a TV miniseries. On the other hand, had this one been chopped up into, say, five 42-minute episodes, I'd be telling you that I didn't really get actively interested until episode four. First two hours struck me as a dutiful, faintly dull rehash of GoodFellas + Casino (with unions substituted for gambling), enlivened by some switch-hitting among the cast—De Niro often subservient, Pesci atypically controlled—and the sheer oddity of seeing digital de-aging employed at such extraordinary length. Maybe I'd have felt less disengaged had I not spent so much time struggling to identify exactly what it is that looks slightly off about fake-younger De Niro. (I eventually decided that there was only so much they could do with his eyes, which retain an elderly appearance even absent most of the wrinkles surrounding them.) Significant reaction shots of little Peggy certainly intrigued me, but they occupy only a tiny fraction of the epic running time, essentially serving as quick recurring assurances that a different perspective is forthcoming down the road. (When that payoff finally arrived, I confess that I found it a tad underwhelming—the barest-bones implementation of pretty much exactly what I'd assumed.) For the duration of an entire "normal" film, I was just kinda sitting there, wondering when it was gonna get great.

And then it did! Not in a way that reverberated backwards, alas—I'll be (pleasantly) surprised if my inevitable second viewing proves revelatory. But once Stephen Graham shows up as Tony Pro, the emotional temperature skyrockets, generating knife-edge tension that's sustained until Houses finally arrives at its poignant coda. Frankly, I don't get the impression that Scorsese (as opposed to De Niro, who was apparently the driving force here) has much interest in Frank Sheeran except as an octogenarian. But he does seem quite enthused about making a far superior version of Danny DeVito's Hoffa—one that creates a plausible, arresting scenario regarding how and why the man got whacked. While Pacino hits too many of his standard bellowing-era notes for my taste, he does capture the fatal arrogance of someone wrongly convinced that he's untouchable; it's excruciating in the best way to watch Pesci's icy-veined pragmatism repeatedly relayed by proxy, only to be deflected time and again by Hoffa's monstrous ego. Wasn't as invested as I was clearly meant to be in Sheeran's reluctant betrayal, but I did appreciate its blunt matter-of-factness, and De Niro's babbling phone call to Jo afterwards rivals Tom Hanks' depiction of shock in Captain Phillips for abrupt, unexpected pathos based on loss of control—it's his finest moment in decades. And then there's the whole senescence angle, which doesn't feel well integrated throughout (the flashback structure alone isn't enough) but hits hard at the end all the same, building to a perfect final line/image. So I was ultimately won over. But I can easily picture a 135-minute cut of this film that would wow me start to finish. Like The Wolf of Wall Street (which I just revisited and slightly downgraded), it seems to be so long mostly because Scorsese and Schoonmaker have gotten much less ruthless as they've gotten older. Just like Frank.

ANAL-RETENTIVE TITLE CORNER: This is far and away the weirdest instance of titular* ambiguity that I've ever encountered. I've seen plenty of films that changed titles (What If remains The F Word in my head, The Command remains Kursk, etc.), and a few for which the title used in marketing diverges slightly from what's onscreen (e.g. Ang Lee's Hulk, which was called The Hulk in every ad and on every poster). But while Netflix likely insisted that Scorsese go with something more viewer-friendly, he's rebelled by sticking with his original, preferred title at the beginning of the film, plus including it alongside (or right after, anyway) The Irishman in the closing credits. My rule has always been to use the title that appears onscreen, prioritizing opening credits over closing credits** if there's a disparity. (I also happen to consider I Heard You Paint Houses the better title by far, but if that were my criterion I'd still be calling Bonello's 2011 film House of Tolerance.) This means referring to a very high-profile film by a different title than most of the world uses (and I won't likely be able to get away with it in my professional writing), but them's the breaks. If Marty really wanted me to call it The Irishman, it would say The Irishman up front.

* Not how that adjective is generally used, but I think it's still technically correct.

** Though I recently flipped on Mulholland Drive (which I formerly insisted on writing as Mulholland Dr., which got it nicknamed Dr. Mulholland on the movie nerd chat group), because it's not 100% clear that the shot of the street sign toward the beginning actually represents the title, even though other credits either precede or follow it, I forget which, anyway. Just heading off any sticklers.

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