One of the most awaited films of 2019 was Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, a mob story following Frank Sheeran, a New York City man of Irish descent who makes his way into Jimmy Hoffa’s inner circle leading up to his infamous disappearance. The film stars Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci in lead roles. Much publicity has been made out of the technology used to de-age some of the veteran actors to play their characters at younger and older stages in their lives in a 3-and-a-half hour film spanning decades. The Irishman is streaming on Netflix after a limited theatrical release in order to qualify it for awards season, where it is expected to win big.
The Irishman came with heavy expectations and hype. Fair enough, considering the cast and director, but I had some amount of apprehension about yet another mob movie, which, in the end, turned out to be more or less exactly what this film was.
To be fair, it’s still a pretty great movie. DeNiro and Pacino give top notch performances, worthy of them and their stature. Pesci is fine, though not altogether any different from, well, Joe Pesci. It’s written damn well, shot interestingly (but for a couple out-of-character sloppy reverse shots from Scorsese, which, to be fair, you maybe have to be looking for) and developed expertly. That last one is a little unfair, however. Any film that has the gall to be three and a half hours long had better well have fully drawn characters. It ends up being quite a lesson in character sketching, though there’s no way the same effect could’ve been achieved in a two hour feature.
There is the matter of the characters themselves, and this is where it gets tricky. Personally, I’ve never had the disdain for formula that others have had. If the formula works then the formula works, similar and the same skeletal structures in films isn’t an issue for an audience if the formula works for you and the execution of the specifics is good. The Irishman ticks the second box with fervour, but the first is a problem for me. Mafia films are some of the most celebrated in history, and, one could argue, one of the most consistent in terms of quality. While I can respect the quality of the films, the genre doesn’t do much for me. It’s difficult for me to give a damn, quite frankly, about these characters. I understand the humanization of murderers and mob bosses, The Godfather does it best and Public Enemies is an interesting one to watch of that kind too, but most other mob movies are centred around, respectfully, idiots. I just don’t relate to that cultural concept of respect and ego. I mean for Pete’s sake, I just can’t physically handle the testosterone-driven bullshit sabre rattling that is the Italian-American organized crime world. It’s irritating more than anything else and, while DeNiro does deliver a worthy performance, there just isn’t enough in his character that speaks to anything I could latch on to and sympathise with. That goes double, maybe triple for Pacino’s Hoffa.
I also take some amount of issue with the self-indulgence of this movie. Frankly, no film deserves to be three and a half hours long. They invented television for a reason, 3-4 hour long miniseries are all the rage now, it’s just self-indulgent to first; make a film so long and second; pace it so poorly. It drags and it drags hard. Does it contribute to the character development? Yes. Is the character development fantastic? I just wish they could’ve found some way to achieve development in subtler ways, as opposed to an onslaught of irrelevant, Lord of the Rings style character building scenes. I would be amiss not to reiterate the quality of the development, seeing Frank’s rise through the ranks, over literally decades of his life is definitely a sight to behold, but it barely qualifies as a film after a point.
It’s a lot funnier than I expected it to be. I guess I realistically ought to have seen that coming, one of the few parts of the mafia movie mould that does consistently work for me is the humour in the jargon-heavy dialogue. It goes further than that, but it has to be said that these movies have given us few greater gifts than the “we’re brothers?” scene with Frank and Joe. It provides a lot of comic relief, but it feels a lot like a laughing at them and not with them kind of situation. The pettiness and the vanity and the straight up idiocy is just hilarious when it’s not taking sympathy away from the characters. Is it a slightly worrisome misrepresentative stereotype for Italian-Americans? Yeah, definitely, and they actually address it in The Godfather. They might do well to do that a little more, just so all Italian-Americans aren’t confused for idiots.
I’m not well-versed with the true story of Jimmy Hoffa. I know he disappeared (as Frank rightly points out in the opening few lines of the film) but I’d need to do some research to know the extent to which this was factually bound. The conflict of having Frank kill Hoffa, having to choose Russ over him, was a fascinating struggle and the best part of the film by some distance. The dynamic with Peggy, which was inevitably tied, was right there with it. Altogether, however, this is a deeply overrated film by my book. My own views on the genre aside, it’s an undeniably and objectively very good film. Is it a great film? Meh. Probably not, and, considering it is basically two films, that adjective gets even further out of reach. It might seem like I’m stickling over the time, but I really do think it’s justified. Runtime includes the amount of time a filmmaker, a writer, an actor, the whole production, takes to tell you their story. More runtime means I have longer to like the character, longer to appreciate the intricacies of a story, and a lot more. Three and a half hours is indulgent to say the least, and, while it translates as it ought to, it doesn’t leave the expected mark. It’s a good film, quite a good film, but that’s all.
– Aman Datta
Aman’s Score – 74/100 Aryamaan’s Score –