“The Irishman” is the latest film from Martin Scorsese, and has been anticipated as much for its cast and director as it was for its infamous budget issues, extensive use of de-aging technology, and being Netflix’s biggest and most ambitious release to date. The film follows Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), as he gets tied up in the Pennsylvania crime world (led by Joe Pesci) and the union war of Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino).
I feel that all three of the leading men in this film — Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci — will have their own supporters as to who steals the show and who the film truly belongs to. For the most part, De Niro is solid in the film, not given too much to do or revealed about his inner thoughts for the first two acts. It is the film’s climax where he is finally given material he can work with, and he nails it. Despite being the titular character and the vehicle for the audience to experience the world (I think he’s in mostly every scene of the film), we don’t peel back the curtain until that third act.
Al Pacino will likely be most people’s favorite performance of the trio as the loud, angry and ego-driven Jimmy Hoffa. He gets the classic Pacino rants and raves to do, and at times (especially when first introduced) he may come off like a cartoon, but it is never not entertaining, and like De Niro, it all comes to a head in the film’s third act.
But for my money, it was the unofficially retired Joe Pesci that stole the show and broke my heart. Playing Russell Bufalino, head of the Pennsylvania crime family, Pesci has a presence about him in every scene he’s in that just says “I’m in control, I hold the strings” and there is one scene where he conveys this by just sitting and staring as a conversation between two other people plays out, it’s phenomenal. There is an underlying message about Bufalino and his desires to be a father, and the way it grows and is conveyed was devastating; Scorsese actually got me to feel sympathy for a criminal who sectioned the deaths of dozens of people, and that is his gift.
As far as the de-aging goes, it is a lukewarm but overall positive bag. When you first see De Niro (who is supposed to be about 35 in the scene but still comes across as 50, guess you can only de-age someone so far), the image is a little creepy and animated, but your brain quickly adjusts. If anything, the blue contacts they have him wear throughout the film are more distracting than the de-aging. The work on Joe Pesci is a little more subtle, his problem is he’s a 76-year-old asked to move around like a 50-year-old, and like Samuel L. Jackson in “Captain Marvel” you can’t hide slow movements of old joints. Al Pacino’s de-aging is actually brilliant, I never once questioned it.
Now, the elephant in the room and the reason this film took so long to get made. It is 209 minutes long (three-and-a-half hours for those who don’t want to do the math). Does the film justify its runtime? I mean, no, there are some repetitive story beats and plenty of scenes where characters are simply sitting around talking. It is a lot to ask for from a theater audience (I didn’t consume liquids after noon to prepare), which again maybe that is why Netflix was so willing to finance, they know folks at home can pause it. There are a few slow parts, especially leading up to that third act, and then the film takes its time wrapping up. To give you context of the scale and duration: there are 320 scenes in this movie; the average film has around 60.
“The Irishman” is the quintessential Martin Scorsese movie, for better or worse. It has the pacing of “Silence,” the dark humor of “The Wolf of Wall Street” and the mafia intrigue of “Goodfellas.” Will it go down in history for more than its behind-the-scenes drama? Time will tell. But it’s one of those films that leaves you with so much to think about and has just so much to digest (guys, it’s 3.5 hours!) that it almost feels unfair to properly discuss it after one viewing.
“The Irishman” will play in select theaters before streaming on Netflix starting Nov. 27.