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The Irishman Movie Review

The Irishman (2019) movie poster The Irishman

Theatrical Release: November 1, 2019 (Netflix Streaming Premiere: November 27, 2019) / Running Time: 208 Minutes / Rating: R

Director: Martin Scorsese / Writers: Steven Zaillian (screenplay); Charles Brandt (book I Heard You Paint Houses)

Cast: Robert De Niro (Frank Sheeran), Al Pacino (Jimmy Hoffa), Joe Pesci (Russell Bufalino), Harvey Keitel (Angelo Bruno), Ray Romano (Bill Bufalino), Bobby Cannavale (Felix "Skinny Razor" DiTullio), Anna Paquin (Older Peggy Sheeran), Stephen Graham (Anthony "Tony Pro" Provenzano), Stephanie Kurtzuba (Irene Sheeran), Jack Huston (Robert F. Kennedy), Kathrine Narducci (Carrie Bufalino), Jesse Plemons (Chuckie O'Brien), Domenick Lombardozzi (Fat Tony Salerno), Paul Herman (Whispers DiTullio), Gary Basaraba (Frank "Fitz" Fitzimmons), Marin Ireland (Older Dolores Sheeran), Lucy Gallina (Young Peggy Sheeran), Welker White (Josephine "Jo" Hoffa), Louis Cancelmi (Sally Bugs), Sebastian Maniscalo (Crazy Joe Gallo), Steven Van Zandt (Jerry Vale), Jim Norton (Don Rickles), Paul Ben-Victor (Jake Gottlieb), Jake Hoffman (Allen Dorfman), John Cenatiempo (Anthony "Tony 3 Fingers" Castellito)


For a long time, The Irishman felt like an unsubstantiated rumor turned into a film fan's pipe dream. The incomparable Martin Scorsese was to reunite with Robert De Niro for another crime drama. Oh and as if it wasn't special enough that the director and actor who gave us Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Goodfellas,
and Casino were reteaming, they were also bringing along De Niro's great contemporary and three-time co-star Al Pacino and Joe Pesci, who had only made one film over the past twenty years. And Harvey Keitel, too.

Well, after years of hopes, The Irishman is very much real and finished. In a bit of cruel irony, the only studio that would give cinema's lover and master the steep $159 million he needed to make this epic film in the manner he wanted was Netflix, who's not very big on theatrical exhibition. Netflix throws no bones to box office reporting and few to those set on seeing movies -- as intended -- projected on a big screen in a darkened public place. But they do care very much about making movies, as evidenced by their willingness to support filmmakers from Alfonso Cuaron to the Coen Brothers. They also seem to care about industry validation and they have the deep pockets to fund serious awards campaigns. After Cuaron's Roma surprisingly fell just short of the Best Picture Oscar in February (remarkable in itself, given that it was a black and white Spanish language drama), Netflix can practically taste the prize and though much of his career went unawarded by the Academy, Scorsese is now arguably the most respected filmmaker working today and as sturdy a figure to pin one's award season hopes upon.

But forget all about awards and the role that standard theatrical exhibition play in the constant "is Netflix cinema?" thinkpieces that soon have to be going away with a resounding "yes." The great Martin Scorsese has made another motion picture and it's one of his greatest yet.

In Martin Scorsese's "The Irishman", meat truck driver Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) comes to work for the Pennsylvania mobster Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci).

Here, Steven Zaillian (Schindler's List, Fincher's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) adapts I Heard You Paint Houses, the 2004 nonfiction book by former attorney and investigator Charles Brandt. The film tells the story of Frank Sheeran (De Niro), nicknamed The Irishman, who we meet taking a road trip in the 1970s with his close friend and associate Russell Bufalino (Pesci), a Philadelphia area mobster. On a highway, the men and their wives stop for a cigarette break by the gas station where Frank and Russell first met in the 1950s. Frank was a driver of meat packing delivery trucks, while Russell helped him out with a car tip while refusing to give his name.

After the contents of one of Frank's trucks goes missing, he gets off with ease while represented by Bill Bufalino (Ray Romano), Russell's cousin and a lawyer with evident pull. Soon after, Frank is working for Russell's crime family, performing murders and disposing of weapons. Russell introduces Frank to one Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino), the head of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters who Frank in his nursing home narration likens to Elvis and The Beatles in terms of mid-20th century cultural impact.

Frank and Hoffa hit it off, each becoming a trusted confidante for the other. It's good to have those in this line of work and the two look out for each other while wielding substantial power and influence in the area via labor unions. Hoffa asks Frank to run for president of one union, which he does. Meanwhile, Hoffa becomes a target of scrutiny from authorities, led by President John F. Kennedy and his brother, attorney general Robert (Jack Huston).

Hoffa eventually serves a 5-year prison sentence for jury tampering. When he gets out, he wants his old position back, but reclaiming it requires finagling with various parties with varied interests of their own.

Film icons Al Pacino and Robert De Niro share the screen at length playing Jimmy Hoffa and Frank Sheeran in Martin Scorsese's epic crime drama "The Irishman."

The specifics of the plot here almost don't even demand synopsis, but The Irishman certainly sweeps you up in them with its intimate character study. Scorsese should have exhausted his and our interest in organized crime. He's returned to that subject again and again, most recently offering a white-collar variation on it in 2013's The Wolf of Wall Street. But Scorsese's crime films are too rich to even be categorized just as that.
His interest always lies first and foremost in the humanity of his characters and how it is affected by the calling and the often complicated loyalties formed. These ideas have fueled a number of the greatest American films of the past fifty years, going back to Pacino's star-making work in Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather and its sequel.

Scorsese's crime cinema isn't easy to mistake for Coppola's, but the slightly younger, also second generation Italian-American Scorsese has mined the terrain to similar landmark effect. Whereas Coppola's career has stalled since going back to the well last on The Godfather Part III (1990), Scorsese keeps finding compelling real life figures to turn into unforgettable dramas.

The story of Sheeran, no more well-known than Henry Hill's was prior to Goodfellas, is supremely interesting as presented in masterful fashion by Scorsese. Having turned 77 this week, Scorsese should have lost a step. Certain Marvel fans upset by his recent dismissal of their genre hits would like you to believe Scorsese is old and out of touch. But literally no one making films for a living would take that stance because Scorsese is virtually a god among men in this art form.

Scorsese reveals himself improbably to still be in his prime on this latest venture, his first with De Niro and Pesci in nearly a quarter-century and his first with Pacino ever. The Irishman is every bit as powerful and arresting as Goodfellas was nearly thirty years ago and still is today. Scorsese's advancing age does influence his perspective, but only in agreeable ways. Irishman is a film populated by old men and though the director uses the best technology around to de-age them sometimes considerably, these are still old men in their mid-to-late seventies and that age invites reflection on mortality and the soul which Scorsese fully embraces.

The de-aging technology, evidently crucial to the filmmaker on a story that spans more than half a century, is not perfect. It can reduce the wrinkles on the actors' faces, but it can't prevent De Niro from kicking a shop owner like an old man and Pacino from having to obviously rely on stunt doubles for two physical sequences. The technology, which ironically has been put to use most extensively on the Marvel movies Scorsese really doesn't care for, is mildly distracting on De Niro, who de-aged doesn't really look like the actor did decades ago. CGI has changed the lead actor's eyes from brown to blue, but the entire effect is slightly jarring, not quite to the extent of Robert Zemeckis' uncanny valley motion capture animation but in that same league.

Presumably, the visuals would be more upsetting on a film where your attentions weren't fully devoted instead to these rich characters brought to life by outstanding performances. De Niro's modern day choices have been frequently criticized, but the actor reveals himself to be fully capable of still unnerving. His turn as the stammering Frank is classic De Niro and is sure to earn him his first Academy Award nomination for Lead Actor since Scorsese's 1991 Cape Fear remake. De Niro comes close to getting upstaged by Pacino, whose explosive volatility, made familiar over the years (and easily sent up by Bill Hader), somehow feels fresh here. There's a lot of the older Michael Corleone in Pacino's Hoffa but it works and we care deeply for this figure remembered, if at all these days, for his puzzling and mysterious disappearance.

Attorney Bill Bufalino (Ray Romano) helps make way for Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) and Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) in Martin Scorsese's "The Irishman."

Those two septuagenarian contemporaries will likely be the film's only two acting nominees, but the cast is universally great. Pesci, coming out of premature retirement for the first time since 2006's De Niro-directed The Good Shepherd is a treat even without the firecracker temper and wit of his iconic two '90s Scorsese turns. Despite the epic 3-hour runtime (with credits), screentime is fairly hard to come by for everyone else, but Romano, Keitel, Bobby Cannavale, Jesse Plemons, Anna Paquin, and Gary Basaraba, among others, make the most of it. There are so many characters introduced, yet the actors make it easy for us to keep track of them and know their angle to all this.

The kinetic energy and never-dull soundtracks of Goodfellas, Casino, and Wolf of Wall Street are neither present nor missed here. Sure, the movie is filled with musical cues and one doesn't envy the challenges Thelma Schoonmaker faced in the editing suite. But Scorsese doesn't need a flashy soundtrack or quick cuts to keep us ridiculously entertained here. He gets great mileage out of De Niro and Pacino having pajama talks in their shared hotel suite and onscreen text identifying how many of the minor characters would meet their ends (often violently in the early '80s). Scorsese says a lot even when he's having Frank's daughter (later played by Paquin as an adult) say nothing as she watches her father in uncertain judgment. Accountability lingers over all these characters, the titular one most of all, and knowing that he will live to grow old enough to deliver his running narration does nothing to diminish the fascinating arcs of his perilous life and career. Even so, the gravity of these proceedings doesn't keep this from being wickedly funny as most of Scorsese's films are to a degree.

I can't think of another American filmmaker whose body of work rivals Scorsese in its ongoing excellence. The last time the director made a narrative film that was less than great was the early 2000s and those works, Gangs of New York and The Aviator, were still nominated for all kinds of major Oscars. Reuniting with these actors after such a long time and quite possibly for a final time gives The Irishman added weight, which fits comfortably on its epic runtime. Somehow, the great Scorsese has met the almost mythic expectations in place for this film for over a decade. All the great films we've seen over the past few months, from the arthouse thrills of Bong Joon-ho's Parasite and Robert Eggers' The Lighthouse to Todd Phillips' Scorsese-inspired Joker to Quentin Tarantino's own terrific epic Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood, somehow pale in comparison to Scorsese's latest opus, which admittedly does have the benefit of building upon so many great achievements and fruitful partnerships.

Scorsese doesn't need to write any more editorials clarifying and defending his definition of cinema. His magnificent films continue to do that all on their own.

Related Reviews:
Now in Theaters: Marriage Story A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood Joker Motherless Brooklyn
Directed by Martin Scorsese: Goodfellas Taxi Driver Hugo Silence
Robert De Niro: Silver Linings Playbook American Hustle The Godfather Part II | Al Pacino: Scarface The Godfather Any Given Sunday
Ray Romano: The Big Sick Rob the Mob | Bobby Cannavale: The Station Agent Blue Jasmine Win Win

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Reviewed November 21, 2019.

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