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Film Review: “The Irishman” Is a Long Journey to Nowhere

Film poster: “The Irishman”

The Irishman (Martin Scorsese, 2019) 1 out of 4 stars.

Based on Charles Brandt’s 2004 true-crime nonfiction book I Heard You Paint Houses: Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran & Closing the Case on Jimmy Hoffa, Martin Scorsese’s latest sprawling mob epic, The Irishman, is an overlong odyssey to nowhere that is stale when it begins and crumbling to dust by the end. A nevertheless brilliant advertisement for today’s awe-inspiring de-aging software – which turns elder thespians like Robert De Niro (Joker) and Joe Pesci (Love Ranch) into credible younger versions of themselves –  the film is, beyond that, ill-served by the narrative torpor that overcomes it from the get-go. Worse, with a mostly passive character as its protagonist, The Irishman can barely muster the energy for what could be a fascinating examination of the nexus between politics and organized crime. As a topper, it’s so casually misogynistic that we barely notice how little women count in this world (or in Scorsese’s), since they’re hardly present, though when they do surface they are nuisances, annoyances or, worse, suffering martyrs.

I suspect that the director and his screenwriter, Steven Zaillian (American Gangster), feel they are offering us a searing examination of toxic masculinity’s lonely endgame (and thereby a repudiation of it), but as Scorsese did in the equally pernicious The Wolf of Wall Street, he here spends so much time on the sordid and bloody details of the on-screen misdeeds as to, intentionally or not, glorify them. Still, at least they liven up the otherwise stultifying proceedings. In a three-and-a-half-hour slog, I’ll take what I can get.

Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci in THE IRISHMAN ©Netflix

De Niro plays the titular character, a small-time hood named Frank Sheeran who, despite his non-Italian background, is recruited as a hitman, heavy and jack-of-all-trades handyman by Pennsylvania-based mafia don Russell Bufalino (Pesci). Through thick and thin, Bufalino sticks by Sheeran, even when he accidentally crosses the line, seeing in him the son he never had. In return, he earns the man’s undying loyalty, no matter what Bufalino asks Sheeran to do. Murder and mayhem ensue … well, murder, anyway, as the mayhem is spread out over the long haul and seems merely mildly chaotic, as a result. Along the way, Sheeran has a family of his own, divorces his wife and remarries, alienates his daughters, infiltrates the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and – oh, yeah – kills its leader, Jimmy Hoffa. He is also witness to the preparations for the ill-fated Bay of Pigs attempted invasion of Cuba, and may know the men who orchestrated the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

That’s a lot, and the scope of it certainly justifies the weighty (and lengthy) ambitions of the director. Unfortunately, as presented inThe Irishman, the material is mostly an exercise in bloat. Al Pacino (Danny Collins) shows up as Hoffa, though his manic efforts in the role do nothing but remind us that, yes, the man, talented though he is, can overact (“Hoo-ah,” anyone?). Anna Paquin (Tell It to the Bees) appears, as well, mostly to throw desolate gazes at the camera, her presence doing little to dispel the male aura of the film. The fixings of a great cinematic meal are all here, but the recipe is off and the oven time too extended.

Al Pacino as Jimmy Hoffa in THE IRISHMAN ©Netflix

I should have known, from the opening Steadicam shot on De Niro, shaky as it was, that Scorsese’s attempt to revisit his own former triumphs (like a Goodfellas) would fail miserably. I far preferred his 2016 Silence, where he transposed his obsession with masculine obsessions into the world of 17th-century Jesuit priests, to this hackneyed revisitation of themes treated more innovatively in the past. Give the mafia a rest. They haven’t earned it, but we have.


Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator, as well as Film Festival Today's Editor. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, Chris is, in addition, lead film critic at Hammer to Nail and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice.

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