As an obsessive fan of The Sopranos, I was eagerly awaiting the release of the full-length movie, The Many Saints of Newark, in a way that I had not looked forward to any movie in a long time. When I read Kyle Smith’s review of it (or more precisely, scanned so as to avoid spoilers), I braced for the worst while holding out hope that his admission that he was not a fan of the original series would mean that I’d appreciate it more. Having now watched it, I would say that I came away with a little bit of both sentiments. That is, there were parts of the movie that I enjoyed based on my emotional connection to the original show and characters, but objectively speaking, Kyle’s criticism of the movie as a cinematic experience was largely correct.
For fans of the show, there were plenty of fun Easter eggs, and some were particularly poignant. It was hard to see, for instance, a young Tony Soprano staring out of the window of Holsten’s, without thinking of the “Don’t Stop Believing” ending of the series, and knowing that it’s where he would (likely) meet his end. There were parts where we could see some of the origins of Tony’s later emotional issues and complex psychological struggles. There are hints of his potential to chart his own course in the legitimate world paired with the reality that given his environment, there was no way his life could have turned out differently.
The problem is that the movie, billed for months in media reports and in trailers as a prequel to the series, unfortunately forgets about the Sopranos family much of the time. Primarily, the protagonist is Dickie Moltisanti, Tony’s mentor and the father of Christopher. Much of the plot focuses on his conflict with his father as well as a black numbers runner with higher aspirations in the wake of the Newark riots. Christopher provides a from-the-grave voiceover a la Sunset Boulevard, that does not work as a framing device and is honestly cringeworthy in parts. It’s unclear to me what David Chase was thinking by mostly ignoring the characters that we care about (Carmela and many of the other series regulars make only passing appearances). It’s obvious that fans of the show, the primary audience for the movie, would be entertained by any new information or insights into Tony’s origin story. We miss Tony and James Gandolfini, and would love to be able to reinhabit that world for 90 minutes or so. A movie could have been unapologetic fan service and it would have worked better. Instead, I found myself enjoying whatever crumbs Chase threw us about the original characters, and bored whenever Tony wasn’t on the screen.
While I cannot speak with any direct knowledge of Chase’s creative process, I wonder if they started off intending to make a pure Tony prequel, but ran into the problem that they didn’t think they had much more to say about him to make an entire movie. Tony Soprano was arguably the most deeply developed character in the history of television. There were already many flashbacks of his early life over the course of the series. As it is, the movie features a restaging of one of the flashbacks, but with new actors (the original scene of Johnny Sopranos’ arrest at the amusement park appeared in the Season 1 episode “Down Neck”).
Anyway, to sum up. If you were a fan of the original series — the type who may have viewed many of the episodes multiple times — there is enough in the movie to make it worth watching. But you’ll probably find yourself pining for more Tony parts. And if you never watched or liked the show, as with Kyle, you’ll probably just think it’s a bad made-for-TV mob movie.