Scorsese has an immaculate reputation of not wasting his viewers’ time.
His films have been aggressive expressions of angst and power that pack deep personal narratives into tightly crafted, beautifully executed scenes. With The Irishman, it seems that Mr. Scorsese might be loosening his belt a bit.
The Irishman is three and a half hours long. This automatically invites me to ask the question: Why the film wasn’t just cut into episodes and presented as a series? This could have given Scorsese even more freedom to flesh out his ideas and give every scene it’s due weight, while making it feel less sacrilegious to stop watching and make myself nachos before continuing
I’m sure the answer to this question has something to do with box office returns. As this film came out before the Covid-19 outbreak, the studio could have a chance at making it’s money back by giving viewers the option of seeing the film in theaters. Besides, with the amount of star power on the screeen, I’m sure this film was costly to produce and needed to make back it’s millions somehow.
Though, after seeing the film I’m left asking myself: Should there have been as much star power on the screen? Seeing Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and Al Pacino all act together is something most people could have only dreamed of, but does it help the story of this film?
The Irishman tells the story of three men at various points in their lives between their late 30s and 80s, all played by men in their 70s. The scenes with Robert De Niro de-aged to look like a man in his 30s were quite uncomfortable to the eye and, specifically during action scenes, somewhat embarrassing and depressing.
The Irishman will forever be known as the film where a few beloved actors got one last chance to act alongside each other. The inclusion of these actors and their director seemed to be the major draw of this film, but it distracted more than it assisted, especially in terms of Robert De Niro. His CGI face makeup was absurdly obvious, and the flat uninteresting elements of the character became more obvious with such a dynamic actor in the part.
De Niro’s character, Frank Sheeran, is not well-written. He has no personal desires or wants. He has no goal he is working towards. He does whatever the other characters tell him to do. He has no agency. I am shocked to see such a passive character in a film directed by Martin Scorsese. If you’re uninterested in seeing The Irishman but still want to get a sense of Robert De Niro’s character, go stand in front of the mirror, make a big frown, and shrug your shoulders.
I don’t know who they thought they were fooling with Robert De Niro’s fight scenes in this film. It very much looks like a pretend fight between an actor and an old man. De Niro plays the personal security guard of rich corrupt men. The character’s entire personality is being able to beat up other large strong men and they decided to portray him with an actor in his 70s. If it weren’t for his history, this would be the least reasonable casting of a character since Rosie O’Donnell played Betty Rubble.
The flatness of De Niro’s character is actually the fault of the screenwriter, Steve Zaillan, who, admittedly, succeeded in other areas of the film’s writing. The dialogue, for one, is fantastic. It’s funny, quick-witted, and does a good job of disguising exposition within the layers of engaging character interactions. I will say at times I was confused, but this may be the fault of my idiocy, so it shall not be critiqued.
The crown jewel of the film is Jimmy Hoffa. The character’s flaws and motivations are the most explicit and understandable of the entire cast. When he was on screen I felt like I was watching a true-blue Scorsese biopic. I’m not sure what made them focus on the passive quiet Frank Sheeran, but I think this might be the biggest mistake of the film.
The directing is still up to the Scorsese standard, but it unfortunately provides many callbacks to Goodfellas, including music tracks, long shots through buildings, and, well, De Niro and Pesci. The cinematography, characterization, and flow feel like his old films, but slower and bloated. It may not be a great idea to be reminding the audience of the younger leaner quicker version of the film you are trying to present to us. The craving to turn the movie off and rewatch Goodfellas for the 300th time was quite strong in the first half.
But maybe the ultimate point of the film is to make us think of the past. The last half hour of the film is just watching our main character get older and older. It’s sad and, at the time, seemed somewhat pointless. Upon reflection, maybe the whole film is a spiritual successor to Goodfellas, an elderly version of my cinematic comfort zone.
The theme of the film seems to be the feeling that the world has outgrown you. The major conflict involves Jimmy Hoffa attempting to maintain control of his union in the face of constant multidirectional adversity. After returning from a stint in jail, the union is being run by a man Hoffa hates and they have no interest in having him return to his old seat of power. Against his best interest, Hoffa tries to push his way back into his seat, but for this, without wanting to spoil, he is shot in the head.
Hoffa can’t resist his nature to scrape and fight his way back into the throne he once sat, but unfortunately, the world has outgrown him. He’s a relic of history who refuses to accept that fact, so he is removed.
The film itself has a similar existence. The world has outgrown these actors, the director, and, unfortunately, this kind of film. Unlike Jimmy Hoffa, I think we’d all like to see The Irishman hold the seat of power as the biggest film of the year. We’d all be so happy to see Martin Scorsese show up with his old team and put these young whippersnappers in their place, but that sadly just isn’t the case.
The Irishman ultimately makes me sad. Seeing these elderly actors and director relive their glory days may be superficially enjoyable, but, ultimately, I think of death. I think of the death of theaters, the death of auteur cinema, and the eventual death of all these magnificent artists. If Scorsese’s goal was to make us face these deaths then he did a good job, but soon I will be rewatching Goodfellas to get the taste of decay out of my mouth.