If I was given only one word to describe ‘The Irishman,’ that one word would be “intimidating.”
At 209 minutes (yes, you read that right), the film’s runtime is a lot on its own. Now add the following: it takes place over the course of several decades and isn’t always linear; whether or not the events actually happened are disputed, but include real historical figures, including the Kennedy family and Jimmy Hoffa; it’s a mafia-centric story, so it features a bunch of guys that look and sound similar and have crazy nicknames; there’s so many guys named Tony you’ll lose count.
Despite all of that, man, is it worth it.
Dipping bread in wine, known as Intinction, speaks to the shared Catholic traditions of Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro). (© 2019 Netlfix US, LLC. All rights reserved.)
Based on Charles Brandt’s novel ‘I Hear You Paint Houses’ (it’ll make sense once you see it), ‘The Irishman’ tells the story of Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran, a WWII veteran turned labor organizer and mafia hitman.
Framed around the idea of an elderly Sheeran (Robert De Niro) telling his story from the comforts of his nursing home, the story starts with a young Sheeran working as a meat delivery driver in 1950s Pennsylvania. Car trouble leads to a chance encounter with Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), a man more connected than anyone he’d ever encountered.
Yet another chance encounter later reunites the duo and, after striking up a friendship, they embark on a journey that leads Sheeran to becoming a mob hitman, a close associate and confidant of Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), and an absentee father and husband.
The story has many more twists and turns than that, but I’m electing to not saying anything beyond that … snitches getting stiches and all. Let’s just say that if half of Sheeran’s claims are true and the other half trash, the story would still be mind-blowing.
Teamster lawyer Bill Bufalino (Ray Romano) and Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) escort Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) to court. (Photo Credit: Niko Tavernise. © 2019 Netlfix US, LLC. All rights reserved.)
And I guess if you’re going to tell a story about a real person with an incredible story, Martin Scorsese is as good a choice as any to do it. And when that person’s story includes the mafia, then Scorsese is the only choice. And, as he does, he tells an in-depth and compelling story that is classic misdirection. ALL of these characters (with the exception of the children, and only some of them) are utterly deplorable, yet somehow Scorsese and his cast make you feel something for them other than disgust. Virtually anyone can make mob hits, gun play, and “working blue” pay off. But it takes a true storyteller to those elements, add mundane ones (car trips, family dinners, etc.) and dreadful humans and actions to it, and make it feel not only real, but somehow normalize it.
‘The Irishman’ might not be on the level ‘Goodfellas’ or ‘The Departed,’ but it’s not as far off as you might think.
Story and Scorsese aside, in my opinion the final word in this discussion is about the cast.
I’m not as bullish on De Niro and Pacino as many people – I love some of it, like a lot of it, and am indifferent or dislike some of it. But here, in these roles, they generally shine. There are times, however, when even their immense talent can’t mask certain things. (I’ll discuss that later.)
You also have an incredible supporting cast of Anna Paquin, Harvey Keitel, Ray Romano, Bobby Cannavale, Jesse Plemons, and about 25 other actors you’ll recognize. There’s not a ton of screen time to go around (somehow), but each piece fits together nicely to tell the larger story.
Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) and Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) debate Hoffa’s next move. (© 2019 Netlfix US, LLC. All rights reserved.)
But for me, the real star is here is Pesci as the head of the Bufalino crime family. Perhaps it’s a case of relative absence making the heart grow fonder, but he is so incredibly good in this role that’s it’s almost unbelievable he doesn’t do this all that much anymore. Russell is respected, respectful, measured, connected and does everything with purpose. It’s much more subdued than we’re used to seeing out of Pesci’s characters, but the intensity is still there.
Here’s my only problem with the main cast: Pacino is 79, and De Niro and Pesci are 76 … and they all look every year of it. They’ve earned that, and they’re still fine at their craft. But using a wide shot to capture Sheeran roughing up a shopkeeper doesn’t magically make it look like De Niro isn’t trying to not break a hip while kicking and stomping. Nor does some slapping some makeup on the soon-to-be octogenarian (Pacino) make him look like a Hoffa in his mid-40s. There are just some things that talent can’t cover up.
That said, if you look past a few minor things and wait until after watching to further research Sheeran’s claims, you should have an enjoyable 3+ hours.
‘The Irishman’ is open now in select theaters and drops November 27 on Netflix.
★★★★ of ★★★★★