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'The Irishman' review: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci revisit the tyranny of the mob … and keep getting younger and younger

Tribune News Service logo Tribune News Service 11/27/2019 By Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune
a person standing in front of a store: Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci in "The Irishman." © Netflix/Netflix/TNS Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci in "The Irishman."

In “The Irishman,” Martin Scorsese’s grand, droll, ruminative valediction to the gangster genre he has done so much to expand since “Mean Streets” (1973), the story of Teamsters lifer and murder-for-hire hitman Frank Sheeran rests on a 1975 road trip two couples, the Sheerans and the Bufalinos of the Bufalino Pennsylvania crime family, once took together, driving west to Detroit for a politically obligatory wedding, with some business to be conducted along the way.

The movie is about that business, and how it haunts a man to the end of his days.

In the wedding spirit, Scorsese and his screenwriter, Steven Zaillian, offer something old, something new, something borrowed and, in the three-and-half-hour Netflix project’s remarkable final hour, a series of blue notes and melancholy passages shot through (after a fair amount of actual shooting) with regret and reflection. Scorsese’s production budget, estimated at somewhere between $150 and $200 million, represents his largest ever, and “The Irishman” is his longest running time to date. So, yes, it’s an epic of sorts. But many years have passed since a Scorsese movie found so much life in such small moments: at a bowling alley, around a dinner table, at a telephone in the room next to the dining room, where a killer stumbles through a sympathy call to the wife of Jimmy Hoffa, missing presumed dead.

Let’s start with something borrowed, also known as “adapted.” “The Irishman” comes from “I Heard You Paint Houses,” Charles Brandt’s 2004 account taken from several long-form interviews conducted near the end of Sheeran’s life. In the book Sheeran confessed to the murder of organized crime-connected Teamsters ruler Jimmy Hoffa. Sheeran also took credit for the 1972 killing of “Crazy” Joe Gallo inside Umberto’s Clam House in Manhattan’s Little Italy. Some believe Sheeran’s confession; others think it’s hogwash.

The “something new” part of the film accounts for many of the budget’s many, many millions. The visual effects house Industrial Light & Magic sent an army of digital artists into battle on this one. Robert De Niro, who plays Sheeran, goes from his mid-20s (in World War II flashbacks, where he learned to be a killer and not mind it) to his early 80s (in the film’s late-life narration scenes, where Sheeran spills his guts to an unseen interviewer, presumably Brandt). The old age makeup in that footage appears to be just that: makeup, old-school and unapologetic and effective. The “young age” footage comprises much of the rest of “The Irishman.” De Niro; Joe Pesci (pulled out of retirement, thank God, to absolutely kill it every second in the calmest possible way as Russell Bufalino); Al Pacino; and others, including Harvey Keitel (as mob kingpin Angelo Bruno), appear to us via digital “age-erasure” technology, here in their 40s, there in their 50s, and so on.

Does it work? Largely, yes, though my eyes could never entirely quit focusing on De Niro’s, because of the digital wrinkle remover effect, and the peculiar, doll-like quality around the eyes and thereabouts, as we watch the younger Sheeran rise through the Teamster ranks. (Also, there’s a brief moment or two with Pesci where his face, his whole head, appears to be floating above someone else’s body.) That’s the conspicuously new element of “The Irishman.” As Scorsese worked to complete this technologically ambitious, narratively rangy project he acknowledged his own concerns about how everybody would look.

Good enough, it turns out, and that’s because “The Irishman” uses the age-erasure technology without living or dying on it. There’s enough movie there whatever your personal response to the uncanny valley element. Screenwriter Zaillian’s flashback-within-flashback structure works wonderfully. Scorsese honors the gangster genre’s roots and Scorsese’s own work — this is the “something old” part — in masterly fashion.

For many, especially for those who end up watching “The Irishman” at home on Netflix starting Nov. 27, the movie holds the promise of an underworld reunion, with De Niro and Pesci together again, and with first-time Scorsese collaborator Pacino joining the high-living corruption as the proud, doomed Hoffa. The film makes its Chicago premiere Thursday at the Chicago International Film Festival, and will play a handful of theaters in the area starting Nov. 1.

The movie’s not trying to compete in sheer “GoodFellas” exuberance with Scorsese’s earlier gangster forays. It moves forward and backward and sideways, getting more unpredictable and compelling as it goes. Then, in the long sequence depicting Sheeran’s testimonial dinner, “The Irishman” turns into a different sort of compelling. Here, stretching out, setting the fates of the major characters into motion, Scorsese delivers something akin to the bleak grandeur of Coppola’s “The Godfather Part II.” It’s also a tribute to films such as Visconti’s “The Leopard,” in its intimation of doom for a finite ecosystem of blood-stained royalty.

Throughout the picture Zaillian’s wit and punch as a writer carefully avoids the wrong kind of funny, though many dialogue exchanges in “The Irishman” — I love the discussion of haddock versus salmon in a late scene, set in a sedan full of testy combatants — percolate just so. Keitel is barely in the picture, but he was born to utter the cryptic threat: “Now’s not the time to not say.” The middle section of the picture, dominated by Hoffa’s machinations and jury tampering and whatnot, settles for a more routine sort of underworld movie, though there’s nothing routine about Pacino’s bizarre notion of a generic midwestern dialect. Also, I wish the film paid more attention to the women in Sheeran’s life, though in a few terse and piercing exchanges Anna Paquin acquits herself powerfully as the Sheeran daughter who knows the truth, and can barely stomach it.

This leads to the “something blue” element. “The Irishman” uses blue notes, in the jazz sense off the phrase, the further it gets into what plagues this murderous company man in the late November/early December of his years. De Niro does some of his cleanest, most affecting work in a long time here, and working with Pesci again, particularly, has brought out a new instinct for minimalism in what must feel, for De Niro, like mighty familiar territory.

Sheeran’s version of events may well be as true to murky historical record as, say, Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood.” Doesn’t matter. It’s not a documentary. The movie proves that you can go back to the same well many times and, well into your 70s, direct a new gangster picture like it’s the first one you ever made.



3.5 stars

MPAA rating: R (for pervasive language and strong violence)

Running time: 3:30


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