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The Irishman

Posted December 8, 2019 By Curiosity Inc.

In my three decades on this planet, I’ve seen the rise and fall of the VCR and the audio cassette. I was there for the entire life span of home dial-up internet access. I’ve lived through six generations of video game consoles. My first cell phone was a freaking flip phone. I’ve seen video games and TV shows, movie franchises, billion-dollar companies, and even entire industries vanish into thin air overnight without a trace. So please forgive me if I’m still not entirely on board with streaming.

Call me old-fashioned, but I actually like to own the things that I buy. I like the idea of discs and cassettes that endure as proof that something — no matter how obscure or ephemeral — existed. Even if it’s erased from the mainstream culture, it still endures. With streaming services — particularly with streaming exclusives that only exist in a digital format — they may as well have been retroactively erased from history when they get removed from the service.

I don’t like multiple streaming services, collectively taking more money and data than anyone can afford. I don’t like the lack of transparency, without any public or reliable metrics to show how many times something has been streamed. I don’t like the dearth of older classic films, an especially great disservice to those with a vested interest in brushing up on film literacy.

This is only the way of the future because this is where the money is right now. If Netflix or Disney+ or whatever is your only movie library, or if you really love something that’s only available on those services, you’d better hope the studios keep playing nice and the monthly subscription payments keep coming in. Otherwise, the content you love is gone in a flash like it never existed and you’re never getting all that money back.

You think Netflix couldn’t vanish into obscurity in a couple of decades? Just ask Blockbuster or Tower Records — there was a time when the both of them were just as big. And at least when they went away, the discs still worked.

Moreover, why settle for the streaming exclusives when there’s so much media out there? I can still go to my local multiplex or my local arthouse and experience a movie on the big screen. It’s especially rewarding if I see the film in a locally-owned space like the Hollywood Theatre.

But even I have a line. And the line is a three-hour runtime. The Hollywood is showing a 210-minute movie without intermission, but I can also see it at home on my parents’ Netflix account and take it at my own pace? You’re goddamn right I’m streaming this one.

The Irishman is the latest mob film from Martin Scorsese, featuring many of his most effective collaborators. The film is adapted from “I Heard You Paint Houses” by Charles Brandt, a book that recounts the life story of Mafia hitman Frank Sheeran (here immortalized by Robert De Niro). I hasten to add that many of his accounts — most especially his involvement in the Bay of Pigs invasion and the fate of Jimmy Hoffa — have been heavily disputed.

It’s hard to put a definite time span on this one, as the movie utilizes no less than two different framing devices! The first framing device is presumably set around 2003 (when the real-life Sheeran died), as Frank’s wasting away in a nursing home and recounting his life story to nobody in particular. It’s an effective and convenient method for voice-over exposition.

From there, we flash back to a certain July day in 1975, when Frank and his longtime mafia handler (Russell Bufalino, played by motherfucking Joe Pesci) take a road trip out to Detroit for, uh, *ahem* business. And almost as soon as their road trip gets started, there’s a flashback to the 1950s, when Frank first met Russell and started his life doing odd jobs for the local crime families. Long story short, Frank goes from there to acting as a bodyguard and mafia liaison for Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), who becomes another mentor figure for Frank.

First of all, just look at this cast. Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Ray Romano, Bobby Cannavale, Anna Paquin, Harvey Keitel, Jesse Plemons, Jack Huston, Domenick Lombardozzi, the list goes on and on. Granted, some actors get more to do than others (Harvey Keitel’s talent is especially wasted here), but they’re all fantastic. Of course, it certainly helps that they’re in a mob film directed by the greatest mob film director in cinema history (with the possible exception of Francis Ford Coppola).

De Niro is more than capable of anchoring the film, and Al Pacino showboats like only he can. But special mention must be given to Joe Pesci, because he’s acting totally against type here and it’s glorious. From Goodfellas to My Cousin Vinny to freaking Home Alone, Pesci is primarily known for portraying explosive anger with invective-laden tirades. He never rises to that level of energy here, but it’s always perfectly clear that he could. So when he’s giving soft-spoken orders and thinly veiled threats, there’s always a tone of menace that’s superbly, beautifully underplayed.

The supporting cast is solid from start to finish. Harvey Keitel only really gets one scene, but he plays the hell out of it. Ray Romano is actually really convincing as a mob lawyer. But then we have Anna Paquin, who shows up in the back half as Frank’s grown-up daughter.

On the one hand, Paquin only gets three lines, totaling something like seven spoken words. It sucks that they got a name actor like Paquin to do so little. But then again, it’s not her story. And furthermore, it was established earlier on in the film (when the character was a little girl played by Lucy Gallina) that she’s shy and quiet by nature. But what’s far and away most important is in Peggy’s role as a moral arbiter. Every time she’s in the movie, she’s always looking at the characters and silently judging them. Major kudos are due to Paquin for conveying so much without using her voice.

Peggy won’t talk to her father, and that’s really what matters more than anything else. Hell, Frank’s proclivity toward violence — even and especially violence toward those who disrespect his daughters — is specifically cited as a major reason why his daughters never spoke with him. Frank made huge stacks of cash, he protected his family from all harm, he ran with some of the most powerful individuals in the nation, and for what? In the end, his friends are all dead (most of them either killed in prison or shot in the street, as title cards helpfully inform us), what’s left of his family won’t talk to him, and he’ll die alone in some nursing home.

It’s not just Frank, either. There was a time when everybody knew who Jimmy Hoffa was. He was one of the richest and most powerful men in the nation after devoting his entire life to protecting the working man. Even if it meant cultivating criminal allies when he needed the money and throwing them under the bus when he needed the votes. And after everything he did, everything he built, he still died and vanished without a trace. And now, if anyone knows the name “Jimmy Hoffa”, he’s just an unsolved murder case.

And Russell Bufalino? Who’s he? Exactly.

I’ve talked a lot before about the “Filthy Stinking Rich” subgenre, and this movie ticks off most of the checkboxes, except for a very important one: No extravagant displays of wealth. We never get a scene in which the main characters get hopped up on drugs, booze, and women. Nobody goes out to buy any fancy houses. We do get one scene to showcase a fancy car — right when it gets confiscated.

When somebody gets shot, it’s literally as simple as “*bang*, dead”. No speed ramping or choreography or flashy camerawork, it’s just that simple and quick. Even when something blows up (and there are A LOT of great explosions in this picture), it’s like Scorsese is trying his best to make it look as mundane and routine he can. Not that it’s really possible to blow up a whole fleet of taxis at once and make it look boring, but still.

The point is that there’s no sense of nostalgia to the proceedings. There’s no attempt at glamorizing the mob life or the shadier side of politics. These aren’t young bucks who want to be billionaires and climb to the top of the world. These are all married men who just want to pay the bills and provide for their kids. And they can’t retire or go into anything else because at this point in their lives, what else could they possibly do?

And again, for everything these men earned and did, they all wound up dead and alone just the same.

The film unfolds over several decades, and I want to give all due credit for how the characters age so gracefully. It truly is a marvel of CGI and makeup technology to make the entire cast look this good at so many various life stages. And of course the actors deserve no end of credit for all the tiny little mannerisms that go into aging themselves up and down. Magnificent work.

I’ve complained in the past about movies that take place over several decades, cramming too much material into too little screen time. That’s not a problem here. Every event is given the necessary space to breathe, and the filmmakers go into enough detail that we understand what was going on in the world at the time. Of course, it certainly helps that the movie is three and a half hours long!

Folks, there’s no getting around this. A three-hour movie would already be a huge ask, and Scorsese has already pushed up against that line in his most recent films. (Remember, Silence clocked in at 160 minutes, and The Wolf of Wall Street was a full three hours.) But going half an hour beyond that line is simply outrageous. That’s practically a full-day commitment. It might as well be a miniseries or a film split into two parts. I’ve seen overlong movies paced in such a streamlined way that they feel like time is flying by (Avengers: Endgame is a great recent example), but I don’t think that’s possible with a 210-minute film.

The Irishman was work to get through. I literally had to clear my schedule for the entire day to stay at home and watch it. Yes, I enjoyed it. Yes, the cast is phenomenal, and nobody can make a compelling mob film like Scorsese. Moreover, it’s a film about looking back at how stupid all this posturing is in the grand scheme of things, and it could only have been done so well by such a legendary cast and crew of veteran filmmakers in their twilight years. But the fact remains that this movie was work to get through, and any movie that feels like work isn’t getting an enthusiastic recommendation.

So we’ll put it this way: If you’re willing and able to put in the kind of effort that it takes to see the movie, then you’re probably the type to enjoy it.