Magazine December 22, 2019, Issue

Why Scorsese’s The Irishman Doesn’t Succeed

Robert De Niro in The Irishman (Netflix)

One of the pleasures afforded by the endless afterlife of Martin Scorsese’s mild critique of superhero movies is to read the fanboys who are still mad, still mad, that Scorsese doesn’t consider Captain America: Civil War to be a great cinematic effort, and who are taking the opportunity afforded by the arrival of Scorsese’s The Irishman on Netflix to watch his elegiac gangster epic and tweet about how inferior it is to their beloved genre sequels.

It’s rather less pleasurable, but necessary for cinephilic honesty, to watch The Irishman yourself and acknowledge that they might be right.

A distinction is important here: Scorsese is a brilliant artist and his new movie certainly contains more artistry in its three-hour-and-30-minute running time than do the Marvel entertainments he described, correctly, as theme-park experiences. But judged in its completeness, as a work with specific aspirations and intentions, The Irishman does not succeed, it frequently frustrates, and there were times — may all the sainted editors of Cahiers du Cinéma forgive me — when I would have rather been watching Ant-Man and the Wasp.

What Scorsese wants to do with this picture is obvious and admirable. He wants to offer a companion piece and a partial corrective to some of his most famous movies, Goodfellas and Casino and perhaps especially The Wolf of Wall Street, in which the sheer pleasurability of criminality, the scenes of lawless masculine delight, were allowed to occlude the larger moral vision, to hide the skull beneath the skin.

The Irishman is the skull on the desk for anyone who watched those movies and relished the outlaw life a little bit too much. It’s a movie that lets the mob life unspool, at a deliberately deliberate pace, all the way to the end — pushing past its moment of irrevocable corruption, the Michael-killing-Fredo turning point, to show what waits beyond, as death encroaches and the wicked man finds himself, decisively and terribly, alone.

This means that its final act, in which the mob hitman Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) confronts his own mortality after a career that culminated in the murder of his famous friend Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), is strikingly original and effective. Unfortunately there are two and a half hours of movie before that final act, and they’re weakened by failures of screenwriting and editing and devastated by Scorsese’s central casting decision, an exercise in nostalgia and techno-faith that simply doesn’t work at all.

The screenwriting/editing failure is that the movie, while extraordinarily long, also sometimes feels too short. It’s episodic and shaggy rather than integrated and parsimonious, hopscotching through history in a Forrest Gumpian fashion, but it isn’t quite long enough to let all the episodes and substories and minor characters live and breathe and work cumulatively toward a common end. Important characters such as Sheeran’s wife and Hoffa’s foster son don’t come into focus, a mid-movie subplot involving a mobster named Crazy Joe Gallo (Sebastian Maniscalco) feels truncated and underexplained, and even the Sheeran–Hoffa relationship seems like it needed a few more establishing scenes to really click.

But all this is forgivable. The deeper problem is Scorsese’s decision to cast the world’s most famous mob-movie actors — Joe Pesci as well as De Niro and Pacino — in roles that they are mostly too old for and then use de-aging visual technology to make them look (supposedly) decades younger.

I get the impulse: He loves these guys, he’s never directed Pacino, like them he’s in late-career, looking-back mode, and he wants the payoff of the genuinely wrinkled De Niro at the end. But while the tech can make faces look younger — the uncanny-valley issues aren’t a huge problem here — it can’t make the actor younger, and in his mind and body as much as in his face De Niro is just too old, too hardened, too sclerotic to play a young, active, charismatic role.

The age issue is less of a problem for Pesci, who is excellent playing a Philly mob boss, or for Pacino, whose acting persona has acquired more bouncing-off-the-walls energy as he’s aged. (Though it’s definitely distracting to have the very Italianate Pacino playing the German-Irish Hoffa while De Niro plays the Irish-Swedish Sheeran, in a story in which the characters’ shared non-Italian ethnicity matters deeply to the plot.)

But De Niro is carrying the movie, and his casting is a failure. He moves like an old man throughout, his shoulders hunched and face frozen when he’s supposed to be a young man on the make, his legs gimpy and his motion creaky when he’s beating people up and schmoozing “older” mafiosos. The nostalgia Scorsese is trying to evoke has the opposite effect: We know how the young De Niro looked and moved and spoke, we can watch his earlier work just by surfing to a different Netflix title, and we know that this constipated-looking guy with a digitally dewrinkled forehead isn’t at all the character Scorsese is trying to conjure, but just a 76-year-old actor who has sadly lost several creative steps, aging out of the suppleness and dynamism that he once amply possessed. Which makes his descent into old age’s regrets less moving or tragic and more like a relief — finally, the part of the movie where De Niro is playing his own age! 

It’s an especially unfortunate irony, given Scorsese’s critiques of superhero movies, that The Irishman suffers because he didn’t recognize the limits of the technology that Marvel and DC rely upon for their theme-park experiences. Special effects can make you believe that Iron Man can fly or that Bruce Banner can hulk out. But they can’t equip Robert De Niro to play a part if you cast him in it 40 years too late.

This article appears as “The Mortal Mobster” in the December 22, 2019, print edition of National Review.

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