Thursday, November 14, 2019

The Irishman – “it’s what it is” – Scorsese rewards loyal fans with a mob-handed epic

Frank ‘The Irishman’ Sheeran sits alone in a nursing home and reminisces how petty crime led him into the vice like grip of the mob, jumping from swindling customers as he drove around making deliveries of raw beef from his meat wagon, to become the violent enforcer responsible for the dead bodies that needed a hearse.

It’s a strange tale, slowly told, that takes in familiar world events – the Cuban missile crisis, the election and assassination of President Kennedy – and the growth in size of television sets through the eyes of the Frank (Robert De Niro), his boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) the president of the powerful Teamster union for whom Frank becomes the mob’s liaison.

While Martin Scorsese was able to get the old gang back together for his epic yet gratuitously bladder-extending three-hour 20-minute mob confessional feature, he forgot to include some lines for women. His daughter Peggy (young Lucy Gallina, older Peggy Sheeran) looks on as she grows up, judging her father and ultimately putting distance between their lives after one particular murder hits close to her heart. It’s finely acted, but accompanied by just a handful of words.

Digital de-aging and commanding acting allow the surprisingly spritely principal cast to play their younger selves without distraction. 209 long minutes that could have been a dour TV mini-series allow the story to be told as an episodic slow burn. Shot on 35mm film, it adopts a televisual widescreen aspect ratio, filling the height of the cinema theatre’s screen, and working well for Netflix who picked up the distribution rights (available online from 27 November, just four weeks after cinematic release).

Adapting Charles Brandt’s book I Heard You Paint Houses, Scorsese does nothing to glamorise the violence, or redeem the gangsters. Captions indicate the truncated lives of minor characters. Life, or rather death, and loss catch up with everyone. There’s a slight sadness as some people’s final days are spent in penitentiary, though never showing any penance. But it’s never touching.

The Irishman is faultless in many respects. Robbie Robertson’s soundtrack supports the action. Rodrigo Prieto’s cinematography captures the greys and browns of the 1950s, 60s and early 70s. I can only assume that screenwriter Steven Zaillian and film editor Thelma Schoonmaker were under strict orders not to trim harshly.

Yet The Irishman fails to become a great movie. The story is just compelling enough to keep you seated for the mammoth duration and not forfeit the considerable investment of time. “It’s what it is” is how one piece of action is foretold. And that describes the film. Having lasted right through, no one at my public screening bothered to stay to watch the credits. Their loyalty to Scorsese was simply paid by their presence, but the film hadn’t earned any additional affection.

You can catch The Irishman in local cinemas for the next couple of weeks before Scorsese’s shark jumps to Netflix.

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