Daily Archives: May 29, 2021

The Irishman (2019)

*. I guess the way to begin is by backing up a few steps. In my notes on Casino I mentioned how it was seen as being the third part of a trilogy of mob movies made by Martin Scorsese, the first two being Mean Streets and Goodfellas, and that it showed a further development toward a “slick and glitzy” direction Scorsese was heading in with Casino and The Wolf of Wall Street. Well, now we have a tetralogy.
*. But in both Casino and The Wolf of Wall Street that glitziness made sense because those movies were dealing with a slick and glitzy world (casinos, high finance). My problem with The Irishman is that it has much the same feel, with less glamorous trappings. I think it’s also the case that The Irishman is the longest and most expensive of all the films I’ve mentioned, and the least accomplished.
*. “It is a landscape of the terminally ordinary, here made splendid,” writes Geoffrey O’Brien in his Criterion essay. The locations “are recreated with a loving care belying the ugliness of what transpires in them.” Yes, but should they be? Should they look splendid, or made to belie the ugliness of the action? Why? In Gene Siskel’s review of Hoffa his one complaint about the movie was that the historical parts were “too pretty.” I can only imagine what he would have thought of this.

*. Part of the recreation with loving care was the digital de-aging of the elderly leads by CGI. Reviews were mixed. I agree with the consensus that they did what they could to take out some wrinkles but they all still look like old men’s bodies with baby-pink faces. More than this, however, I’d complain about the miscasting. Since this may be Scorsese’s last rodeo I can see why he wanted this bunch of actors, but I think most of them are hopelessly miscast. Robert De Niro and Al Pacino don’t look remotely like Frank Sheeran or Jimmy Hoffa. Or Irish. The latter case was really the most egregious. I mean, this is just Pacino doing Pacino. He’s no Jimmy Hoffa. Or Jack Nicholson.

*. If Pacino is just being Pacino then Scorsese is just being Scorsese. This is a well produced film, that moves well enough until its final act, but it’s also a walk down memory lane. And not all of those memories are fond. Remember when I complained about the diner scene in Goodfellas where the action stops and we get a voiceover telling us what we’re seeing? It’s done exactly the same here (in what I think was the same diner even). Then the murder of Jimmy Hoffa is a repeat of the murder of Joe Pesci’s character in Goodfellas. Why?
*. I wanted to like him, but De Niro seemed to be mailing it in. Especially with the stuttering he develops later as a way of avoiding trying to show real emotion (which I suppose is kind of hard to do with a CGI face). Joe Pesci was the only actor I enjoyed watching and at one point I started wishing the movie had really been about his character. I’m pretty sure Russel Bufalino was a more interesting guy than Frank Sheeran. Anna Paquin and Harvey Keitel are faces in the crowd. Ray Romano felt out of place.
*. I mentioned how the movie moves well until the final act. Up till the murder of Hoffa it’s a pretty standard mob story of loyalty, betrayal, family, and business. We’ve been here before many times, but those parts always work. But then there’s half an hour more to run and nothing much happens. Was I suppose to care about Frank’s relationship with is daughter? Because I sure didn’t. I also didn’t understand the idea, suggested by many, that I was supposed to feel sympathy for Frank at the end.

*. Given that the historical basis for the film was Sheeran’s not-so-reliable book, I thought it might have been fun to have played with him suffering from dementia, making some of his memories into gangland fantasies (which they may well have been). This was suggested in Once Upon a Time in America, where the whole thing might have been an opium dream. But then I hated Once Upon a Time in America.
*. I did like Robbie Robertson’s score, the main line of which kept sounding like it was going to break into Led Zeppelin’s version of “When the Levee Breaks.” Aside from that, I found this to be sub-Sopranos, or any of the other really good cable shows that Scorsese seemed to be mainly drawing on. That The Irishman was released on Netflix only draws these connections closer together. Scott Marks, in the San Diego Reader, was even more damning in his review: “He [Scorsese] knew all along that the majority of viewers would come to the film on television, so he shot accordingly. A betting man would wager that well over half the picture was composed in TV-safe closeups and reverse angle shots of well-paid actors talking, the impact of which would not be lost on a flatscreen. I liked it better when Scorsese, not the medium, dictated shot size.”
*. Airbrushed actors, and a director, assembled for a polished homage to their own careers. Watchable, but in no way original or essential. It’s a movie you come to wanting to admire, but it seems to me like a small, slow backward step for everyone.

Goodfellas (1990)

*. Martin Scorsese on the edge. By which I mean not on the edge of visionary daring, but in terms of his career. I think his run of great movies ends here. There’d been Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. There’d also been The King of Comedy and After Hours. But Goodfellas, which I think is a great movie, marks a tipping point. Next up would be Cape Fear, a movie I also like but which clearly goes over the top in a lot of ways. Then an avalanche of excess. Indeed, excess became his theme and not (just) his style. Casino. Gangs of New York. The Aviator. The Departed. Shutter Island. The Wolf of Wall Street. The Irishman (a movie I really wish he hadn’t made). Weren’t these movies all too much? Expensive. Overlong. And all about going too far.
*. Like I say, for me Goodfellas marks a watershed, staying just this side of being too much. Still, there are a couple of places where I thought Scorsese was tipping his hand as to where he was going.
*. The first example I’d give is the famous entrance to the Copacabana Club. Scorsese has talked about this single long take as expressing how Henry Hill’s way into the gangster lifestyle has made everything easy for him, opening doors, and his entrance certainly conveys this. His path, and that of the camera, is lubricated by money. But while I appreciating it I couldn’t help thinking of how much it must have cost to set up a shot like that (and they did seven or eight takes). Just as Henry is flashing his cash, Scorsese is flashing his, in terms of budget. It’s a conscious display of excess for both of them.
*. The second example is something that bothered me the first time I saw the movie and still does today. It’s the scene near the end where Henry (Ray Liotta) meets Jimmy (Robert De Niro) at the diner and Jimmy asks Henry if he’ll go down to Florida and whack someone for him. This is just a way of getting rid of Henry out of state. Henry understands this because he’s never been asked to whack somebody before, so “that’s when I knew that I’d never come back from Florida alive.”
*. Why include the voiceover telling us this? And making things worse, why go to two freeze frames on the faces of Jimmy and Henry? I hated this. Why? Because it highlights, underlines, and prints in bold all caps what should have been done quietly, just with faces. Henry has figured out what’s going on, and by this point in the movie so have we. It actually echoes an earlier scene where Henry’s voiceover tells us “that’s when I knew Jimmy was going to whack Morrie.” So here there’s no need to tell us what could and I think should have just been shown. Did Scorsese not trust Liotta in being able to sell it? Or not trust his audience to be able to pick up what was happening?
*. I mention this because it’s part of the lack of subtlety that Scorsese’s filmmaking was increasingly being taken over by. And it upsets me because I think Scorsese is better than this.
*. He really likes setting up corpses as artistic tableaux. I lost count of how many there are here, with every blood spatter lovingly painted on the screen. But this is another place where I think less might have been more.

*. I still think Goodfellas a great movie though. It certainly moves well, at the tempo of Henry’s nervously intense narration. And Henry is a perfect surrogate, if not for the audience then for Scorsese, who has always seemed a gangster fanboy. I’ll bet as far back as he can remember he wanted to be one.
*. This is a point that really exercised David Thomson, who was disturbed by the “trembling, increasingly cocaine-dependent ambivalence” Scorsese presents when it comes to the evil of the wise guys. “Does this film have a secure attitude toward the lives of its guys, or is it giddy with its own ability to ride along in their slipstream?” he asks. “It’s as if Scorsese cannot bring himself to disown this demon, and movement, vitality, mad humor, music, and contempt for women are the ingredients of the lifestyle of the GoodFellas.”
*. I don’t agree with this. One of the things I like the most about the movie is the way the main characters aren’t charismatic in any way. Henry might want to be a gangster, but would anyone want to be Henry, as cool as he tries to make it sound? Tommy (Joe Pesci) is, of course, a psycho. Jimmy is a lying piece of dirt, and not even much of a player. Henry is only a sidekick. With his phoney laugh and obsequiousness he reminds me of no one so much as John Candy’s William B. Williams on The Sammy Maudlin Show. And even his wife Karen (Lorraine Bracco) is only a wannabe bad girl. She’ll be a gangster’s moll if the pay is good, and can be a bully as much as her husband, but she’ll fold at the slightest pressure. These aren’t villains of any stature but only snakes in the grass.
*. So is the gangster lifestyle as presented here seductive? I don’t think so. Even the signature catalogue of corpses revealed to Eric Clapton’s “Layla” is bathetic. The pink Cadillac. The meat truck. Just taking out the trash. And then there’s Henry’s envoi to the audience where he calls us “suckers”: our wasted lives spent among “those goody-good people who worked shitty jobs for bum paychecks and took the subway to work every day, and worried about their bills.” But that house in the ‘burbs looks so much nicer, certainly less vulgar and tacky, than any of the places we’ve seen in the rest of the movie. Henry is laying it on too thick here, trying to cheer himself up. He’s so easy to see through, so unconvincing. Not a real gangster at all, but still only wanting to be one.