Movie Review: The Irishman (2019)

The Irishman: B+

It’s one more bravura trip to the underworld for Martin Scorsese’s requiem repertory of Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Harvey Keitel plus first-time collaborator Al Pacino. The Irishman, a.k.a. I Heard You Paint Houses (B+) chronicles nearly six decades in the life of De Niro’s stoic WWII veteran character, an Emerald Isle descendent who speaks Italian, a truck driver lulled into a regimented mobster and bodyguard life, buoyed by two notable bosses: Pesci as a low-key early enabler and Pacino as Jimmy Hoffa himself. The whirling dervish of a director, concerned with Big Themes surrounding the milieu he’s mastered, adds to his usual fetishized gangster tropes a profound sense of melancholy about the toll 60 years of postwar American violence takes on its inhabitants. If GoodFellas felt like a party and Casino the hangover, this is the bleachy clean-up. The structure is episodic and criss-crosses through flashbacks and flash-forwards via a marginally successful de-aging effect of its principals. There are times the CGI/makeup mixology generates an acceptable fuzzy fountain of youth mask, but sometimes the enterprise feels like the live-action geriatric stepchild of a Polar Express train conductor given hard-scrabble birth in the Dick Tracy villain lair. The near three and a half hour extravaganza may actually benefit from an episodic binge on Netflix. If this overlong opus were viewed in three acts, you’d notice that classic blood packets get ample use in the nostalgic first hour (“Now that’s what I call the Mafia” greatest hits), the middle section is more slow-burn sag than grandpa at the health club and the final hour brilliantly crystallizes themes about the consequences of following a lifelong criminal code of conduct. The problematic hole in the center of the film is its impenetrable leading man, largely a distant protagonist relegated to reacting to much more interesting characters. Meanwhile, an understated Pesci shines in a supporting role, stripped of his usual comedic schtick and imbued with icy menace, and Pacino’s Hoffa is a veritable kaleidoscope of kitsch and vinegar. Pacino plays this man of profound contradictions with Grand Guignol relish, at one point berating an associate mercilessly for being late for a meeting and later fondly indulging in an ice cream sundae. De Niro comes into his own in a critical dramatic phone call sequence late in the story. Women get short shrift in the saga, however, especially Anna Paquin as the protagonist’s daughter who basically plays his guilty conscience. Marty stuffs a lot into his gangland dish including on-screen historical text markers, reflective narrations featuring axioms of the crime life and a few funny conversations including Jesse Plemons and a protracted discussion of a rogue fish. Despite the running time being a bit of a slog, Scorsese proves the ultimate wise guy with this elegiac epic. It’s a worthy entry into this prickly and particular director’s own universe of marvel.

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