In my review for the new Terrence Malick film, A Hidden Life, I found myself comparing it to Martin Scorsese’s film Silence. That 2016 film seems to be stuck in the head of many reviewers right now, as some reviewers have compared it to Scorsese’s current film, The Irishman. They feel The Irishman is a companion piece to Silence, as they are both meditations on mortality.
I don’t see that at all.
For me, Silence was a meaningful, meditative essay on individual belief, whereas The Irishman is a bloated gimmick. The films I was reminded of the most while watching The Irishman were Goodfellas and Casino, two of my favorite Scorsese pictures, not because The Irishman is as good as those films, but because it feels like a lazy rip-off of both. I truly hate to say it, but The Irishman left me confused and disappointed. Disappointed in what I’d hoped would be another Scorsese triumph, and confused as to what exactly it was supposed to be.
Netflix has done everything possible to endear itself to filmmakers. The company desperately wants to be taken seriously in the industry as a legitimate studio, so it has used its vast resources to draw top-tier talent. It also seemingly has imposed zero limitations, financially or artistically, which, I would imagine, would be heaven for a filmmaker. And from the looks of The Irishman, Martin Scorsese utilized every drop of Netflix’s desperation, deep pockets and long leash to make his dream project. Unfortunately, The Irishman falls way short of expectations.
Scorsese is probably the only one in the world who can get Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci to be in a movie together. While DeNiro is enjoying a career renaissance and has been working a lot lately, Pacino’s career has taken a bit of a backslide since his glory days and he’s become almost a satire of himself and Pesci, an Oscar-winner for his performance in Scorsese’s Goodfellas (and nominated for Scorsese’s Raging Bull), hasn’t acted much at all in recent years, appearing in only two movies in the last decade. And Scorsese, of course, is a legend of his own, so, when it was announced that these four would be working together for the first time ever, the industry was breathless with anticipation. Sadly, it ended up being not much more than a marketing gimmick. You need more than actors to make a movie work. You can even have a great director. And, it turns out, you can even have a great screenwriter, as The Irishman does in Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List, Moneyball). But there is such a thing as too many cooks in the kitchen, it seems, as the final product felt more like what they wanted to make and not what we wanted to see.
Where The Irishman really fell short for me was its over-reliance on familiarity. Scorsese’s best work has been mob movies. DeNiro, Pacino and Pesci’s best work have been as mob guys. So this naturally had to be a mob movie. These guys had to play mobsters. There was no way around it. So then they had to figure out a story to tell where they could shoehorn all three guys into prominent characters. Enter Jimmy Hoffa and Frank Sheeran, the famous union boss from the ‘50s and ‘60s and the man who claims to have killed him on behalf of the mob. Pacino plays Hoffa, DeNiro plays Sheeran and Pesci plays the mob boss who orders the hit. At first glance, it all sounds quite promising. The problem is, the movie isn’t just about that story, instead, it is a rambling, epic and not-at-all-focused look at the entire world of mob life that spans decades. Because of this, the film is a way overlong three and a half hours that loses all sense of focus and urgency in favor of lingering mood creation and actor ego-stroking.
And we haven’t even gotten into the problematic digital de-aging process that has made this film so controversial. Simply put, the de-aging doesn’t work. Neither does trying to convince us that DeNiro is Irish, partly due to the fact that the blue contact lenses he wears are utterly distracting.
In the end, I just felt extremely disappointed in a movie that could have been so much more if it hadn’t tried to be so much more. It felt like everyone was making a tribute to themselves, to past successes and to their own legacies. Pacino is horribly miscast as Hoffa, and DeNiro seems to be sleepwalking. At least Pesci is great to watch and seems at ease playing against type. If only this whole film had leaned more into that. We needed far less of what we have seen before and much more of what this artistic combination could have been.