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Review: 'The Irishman'

Netflix-produced Martin Scorsese picture recounts half a century of organized crime

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GOODFELLAS: From left, Robert DeNiro, Joe Pesci and Martin Scorsese on the set of 'The Irishman.'

Despite its budget, The Irishman is not a spectacle—although, from the art direction to terrific soundtrack, it's almost as an evocative summing up of mid-century America as Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Much of the budget went to the technical component of making Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Al Pacino into synthespians of themselves.

This digital scrubbing hasn't been done much in a drama, as opposed to superhero films where Robert Downey Jr. and Samuel Jackson got the benefit of pixel-sandblasting. Of course, one could grumble that Francis Coppola doubled old and young actors without benefit of CGI in Godfather II, using old-media methods like sharp casting, juxtaposition and Nino Rota music strong enough to link present and past.

But the effect works in The Irishman, as the actors get to be the people they used to be. Scorsese makes us see their youth through their elderly faces. It has its limits, particularly in strong daylight; the color sometimes seems a little off—it's the old problem of how computer-generated graphics don't reflect light but instead glow from the inside. Point is, I've seen many actors with facelifts that were far more constricting and distracting than what we see here. And the gambit links the various eras of these characters together, during a gripping and far-seeing personal history of how high-level crime rotted our Republic.

As for facial mobility, DeNiro doesn't go in for it much here. His Frank "The Irishman" Sheeran is someone who'd been pretty much dead inside ever since his service in WWII. He's a checked-out, tight-lipped character who doesn't expect much and doesn't pull many faces. He has pretty much the same look when he's scooping into a bowl of cold cereal or giving some target two in the hat.

Given what a rock fan Scorsese is, it's appropriate to quote the lyrics of Pink Floyd's "Free Four": "The memory of a man in his old age/is the deeds of a young man in his prime/he shuffles 'round the gloom of his sick room/and talks to himself as he dies..."

In Goodfellas, Scorsese's camera glided around the backrooms of the Copacabana to capture the glitz on stage. Now it courses through the halls of an old folks' home to zero in on a denizen. His interior monologue changes to an exterior one in the course of a sentence; Frank is one more old gray man in a wheelchair trying to tell some unseen listener the story of a wedding he once attended in Detroit.

The anecdote expands into a three-sided tale of the old days, when Frank was a soldier, and then a hapless Philly truck driver who moved sideways into delivering pilfered beef carcasses to a mob restaurant. There he became first the employee and then the crony of a made man, Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci); he got work as a button man who could never be an insider with the Sicilian gents because of his Irish blood. He's a contractor. "I hear you paint houses," is the greeting he gets—the sick joke is explained with a gunshot and a splash of blood. But now, all that's left from his time as a killer, a Judas goat, and a convict is just a gaudy gold ring the size of a poker chip.

Frank is a Forest Gumpino, a witness to Secret History, a sturdy if wooden trellis that a half-century's worth of florid high-level crime trails around. The Irishman is the story of how the country was warped through the destruction of the most powerful labor leader in American history, Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). It tells of the assassination of JFK, and how a familiar face or two from all this Mafia-CIA conniving came back for the Watergate burglary.

I'm agnostic about the story of the Mafia's part in the JFK killing, but Steve Zaillian's first-rate script gives one food for fantasy. It reminds us that the JFK regime left proud, powerful men badly burned.

The funniest thing in the movie is the aged Frank trying to fathom attorney general Robert Kennedy's motive for going after organized crime. Why didn't he sensibly quid pro quo the Chicago mob that helped his brother John win a squeaker election in 1960: "What's that about? Am I missing something here?"

The Irishman's understory is about the irony of slow decay. A man who had put so many bullets into so many heads still has the problem of any geezer: He falls and he can't get up, and his daughter (Anna Paquin, great in a part that's a series of angry glances) won't call him. Curious that a film with this much bitterness in it should be so savory, proof as it is of Willie Sutton's Law: "Crime pays but it don't pay much."

There's a number of reasons The Irishman doesn't resemble much of Scorsese, beyond the obvious lack of food porn. Everything is so much smaller than life.

The violence is sudden, and it's over the minute you see it. It's not valorized or amped up; it's not made juicy or alluring. The tone is close to the hushed, procedural way crime functions in Francesco Rosi and J.P. Melville.

It's about pre-Reagan America, before the rich got super rich and luxury got Trumpian; a well-off crook like Bufalino may be collecting wads of cash all over the Midwest during the trip to Detroit, but all that money just buys a stay at a Howard Johnson's or a trip to the bowling alley, the cold comforts of an ice cream sundae or a bowl of cereal.

The rewards always look second rate: too small hotels, with rooms that have to be shared (Frank always gets the trundle bed). The biggest event is staged like a plumber's convention: a 1970s testimonial banquet where figures at the top of the Teamster world meet with the criminals who are spending its money. This particular evening, the differences become irreconcilable; the verbal pussyfooting and the careful, loaded words don't do the job anymore.

Factually, the The Irishman is wobbly—fascinating and atmospheric as it is. Could one man have whacked Crazy Joe Gallo—a true act of public sanitation, that—and also have been there holding a gun, participating in of the great mysteries of the last century? But I saw The Irishman at the Mill Valley Film Festival, and hardly noticed the 3 hours passing. If anything, it could have used a little more length to explain the ins and outs of Jimmy Hoffa's Nashville trial; Pacino, given a wig to make him look squareheaded like the man himself, becomes a driven, multi-faceted figure. He's a warm man—doomed by his own integrity, and like so many old men, he drives over the cliff because of his pride. Hoffa's name-calling Trumpian style (calling RFK "Booby Kennedy" from the podium) gives us a mirror of our own age. No matter how it's denied by partisans, the Trump family are at least friends of "Friends of Ours."

How much allure The Irishman will have for a younger audience is a puzzle. But this movie about the ashes of crime is Scorsese at his sharpest and most feeling. Whatever it cost, and whatever the future holds for Netflix, they've financed a great picture.

The Irishman
R; 210 Mins.
Pruneyard Cinemas, Campbell
Streaming on Netflix Nov 27