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.