by Kevin Muller
The Irishman represents a lot as a film. First, it is the first time the legendary director, Martin Scorsese has worked with legendary actor, Al Pacino. This is also a big gamble for the streaming service, Netflix, who put up the $159 Million dollar budget, when almost every studio in town passed on it. The company has released many films before, including last year’s Oscar winning, and my favorite film of the year, Roma. The gigantic price tag went to de-aging the actors, since this film spans over 50 years. It is an expensive trick to finance. Most of all, this feels like a good-bye to a genre of films made by the master and his crew of skilled actors. The important question is, does it all work?
Yes, it works. It works for all those reasons and a lot more. The film is a straight up masterpiece. Is that a surprise? This is Scorsese firing on all cylinders and hitting all his targets with supreme accuracy. It has all the elements that he succeeds with: mobsters, vintage, politics, violence, humor, and a realistic peak inside the world where all those qualities exist. Here, we get a story about the murder of Jimmy Hoffa. For those of you who don’t know, Hoffa was an American Labor Union head who always fought for the little guy. At his peak, he was as popular as any celebrity or politician who existed at the time. Unfortunately, he got involved with the mob, which led to his disappearance. No one really knows what happened to him. For this film, Scorsese has adapted the book “I Heard You Paint Houses,” which was about Frank Sheeran, who worked for both Hoffa and the Bufalino family and, according to him, was the one who pulled the trigger on Hoffa.
Hoffa, played miraculously by Al Pacino, doesn’t come in until the first hour of the three and half hour film. At first, this is mostly about Sheeran, played by De Niro. Sheeran has just returned from the Second World War, has a family, and is looking to start making money. While at his new job, Sheeran commits some money related crimes, where he won’t name any of the people involved. His lawyer, Bill Bufalino, is impressed with his loyalty and decides to introduce him to his cousin Russel, who is in charge of the Northeast Pennsylvania crime family. Joe Pesci, who came out of retirement for the film, plays Russell. Russell then sets up a phone call between Hoffa and Sheeran, the two talk, see eye to eye, and that is where the film truly begins. Through the course of decades, we see these two develop both a business and personal relationship. Hoffa makes his way into Sheeran’s family, breaking through the impenetrable wall that Sheeran’s daughter, Peggy, has up at all times. See, she knows who her father is, and what he is involved in. Much to Sheeran’s dismay, she trusts Hoffa and interacts with him as if he is her dad. Outside of his charming nature, Hoffa has extremely stubborn tendencies and issues with pride. It is those two qualities that lead him to his fate, despite Sheeran pleading for him not to mess with the mafia.
Scorsese has no problem pulling top actors to his films, but he really knocked it out of the park here with the cast. All the performances are incredible, and your personal preference will be responsible for who is your favorite. To the younger generation, it would not be surprising for them not to understand the power of De Niro. For almost 20 years, he has been mostly been putting out mediocre material, with the occasional bomb and sometimes giving us performances that show us evidence of his legendary status. For the majority of this thing, he is on screen, taking us through the emotional turmoil that is Sheeran’s life, especially when he has to take out Hoffa. It is the final act of the film where he really shines, helping Scorsese out with the overall themes of his mafia films, including this one. Yes, living the life in the mafia can have its benefits, but when it all ends, and you are left without the things that really matter in life. You feel the isolation, hopelessness, and regret that Sheeran has for his terrible decisions. De Niro does more than enough to convey this through his performance. Al Pacino is known for his bombastic energy.His Hoffa is one who is always ready for any confrontation. There is a scene, with a fellow associate, played brilliantly by Stephen Graham, where the two debate both tardiness and clothing choices that shows the morality of the Union head. His manic energy comes out when he starts to fight back against the mafia. Pacino holds your attention every minute he is on screen. The cast is also rounded out with other respected actors, like Harvey Keitel, whose role is a brief, but a memorable one, Ray Romano, giving a respectable turn as Bill Bufalino, Bobby Canavale, with his good looks being masked by makeup, which makes him look like a slimy mobster, and others who move the narrative along. The best of the bunch is Pesci. His only Oscar, for Best Supporting Actor, was for his performance in the 1990 classic, Goodfellas. In that film, his character, Tommy, was an out of control psycho, who played by his own rules and killed anyone, with ease, who looked at him the wrong way. In The Irishman, he is calm, calculated, and dangerous. It is as frightening of a character as Tommy, but in a far more subtle way.
All this perfection comes under the watchful eye of Martin Scorsese. As with his actors, he is in his 70’s, but still has the energy of a film maker that could be his Grandchild. Every shot from the first frame to the last, is a carefully planned and flawlessly executed. Though the tight editing does guide us through an epic story, it does feel like a three and half hour film. That isn’t a knock at all against the film. Since Netflix gave the director full control, he takes his time letting this thing breathe so that the ending hits you a lot harder and makes everything come full circle. Screenwriter Steve Zaillian easily brings everything to this story: regret, historical events, the price of pride, and the power of money. He also breathes so much life and character into every person on screen. As stated above, Peggy, Sheeran’s daughter, is cold and distant from her father. The way Zaillian and Scorsese show this is one of the more interesting parts of the film. Lucy Gallina and Anna Paquin, who portray the younger and older version of the character, have very little dialogue, but say so much through their facial expressions. Where a lesser screenwriter would have her over react with dialogue, Zaillian gives her just enough, along with Scorsese’s direction, to make her an important and impactful person in the story.
The film wrapped almost a year ago. Since then, the visual effects artists have been hard at work making De Niro, Pacino, and Pesci, all look younger for the earlier scenes of the film. You will appreciate this feat as the movie moves forward in time, and these guys start to look like how they do today. Much of the editing, done by longtime collaborator, Thelma Schoonmaker, was probably done during that time too. Believe it or not, this film was rumored to be originally over four hours long. If the story was as interesting as the three and half hour cut, it would’ve been interesting to see what part of the story went deeper than what is in the final product. Either way, what we got is gold and more than we deserve. The Irishman was worth the wait, worthy of the long running time, and is one of, if not, the best film of the year. It is truly a miraculous film.
I am giving The Irishman a 5 out of 5 Hairpieces!