Thursday, December 19, 2019

Look for the union label


The Irishman is a pretty big container for what amounts to not all that much.

Directed by Martin Scorsese
Written by Steve Zaillian (based on the book I Heard You Paint Houses by Charles Brandt)

Spoiler alert: N/A

The Irishman is a film I like more than I respect, but I'd almost have to, since even though I only like it a little, I respect it not at all.  It's a movie that doesn't really do what it was designed to do, and that puts it on at least the border of failure, considering that this design was invested with both enormous amounts of money (between 150 million and 180 million dollars by streaming giant Netflix, in their ongoing pursuit of legitimacy) and the kind of runtime that would sound like a joke if I quantified it (it is the longest movie Martin Scorsese ever made, which should intimidate if not outright terrify you).  But it became an "event" regardless; in twenty years, it will be categorized as minor Scorsese—mark my words, the future will barely care about it—but it might also be the last Scorsese.  And, all things being equal (though here they are not remotely equal), it's absolutely better to celebrate a legend during his lifetime rather than afterward, so he can know that he meant something.  It's morbid to even acknowledge it, I suppose, but certainly Scorsese himself knows he's mortal.  That's why this movie takes on the form that it does.  Notionally, then, Scorsese has engaged in a reckoning with the strong possibility that this is his final work, and that his career, often considered synonymous with the cinematic chronicle of American organized crime, will end with The Irishman.  Or, if you prefer your titles to not be so beige and boring—as Scorsese himself clearly prefers, since The Irishman is not the name he pasted onto his movie—we could at least mention its real title, I Heard You Paint Houses.

The "you" there is Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro).  The "houses" are indeed sometimes (if not usually) houses.  The "paint" is blood, Sheeran being an Irish-American truck driver from Pennsylvania who, in the late 1950s, fell in with mafioso Russell Buffalino (Joe Pesci) by way of Buffalino's cousin, Teamster lawyer Bill Buffalino (Ray Ramono), and thereafter became the trusted weapon of the Buffalino crime family.  Meanwhile, Sheeran rose in the ranks of the mobbed-up Teamster union itself, and, ultimately, his criminal handlers placed him alongside the Teamsters' beleaguered president, Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), nominally for Hoffa's protection.  I bet you can guess how this works out.  The whole long story is related to us by way of one of Scorsese's favored storytelling devices for this kind of film—a shitload of discursive, docudrama-like narration—and this is initially presented as the recollections of Sheeran himself in this film's "present day" (likely 2003, the year of the real Frank Sheeran's death), as Sheeran sits sadly in his wheelchair and directly addresses a camera that has tracked through his old age home, evidently looking specifically for an old mobster to tell it a tale.

The involvement of this filmmaker and those actors—De Niro, Pesci, Pacino (and Harvey Keitel's in it too!)—naturally brings to mind the magisterial mafia epics of decades past, and this is what folks have run with for The Irishman, a movie about an old mobster made by an old mobster movie director.  They overemphasize how much it actually does with this idea, though they're not wrong: it's a movie by an old man, about an old man.  It moves like an old man.  It doesn't have much to say about being an old man, other than being the sum of one's moral choices sucks.  It puts no poetry to that at all, which, I grudgingly concede, might be the point.  The defining sense of the film is that of a filmmaker whose intoxication with the mobster ethos has diminished, and who now sees in it only its didactic possibilities, the way it offers itself as a particular, well-worn lens through which to view post-war America and the corrupt underpinnings of American capitalism.  (Albeit, in this instance, the labor part of that equation, and it's hard not to see some extremely sharp anti-union sentiment in The Irishman, even if it is rooted strongly in fact.)

I guess most of Scorsese's gangster movies wake up to sobriety eventually (not The Departed or Gangs of New York, of course, but they don't count), and their fabulistic quality fades, replaced with the cold, hard facts.  The Irishman starts there.  All the more enjoyable and energetic Scorsesian moves have been flattened and blunted.  They've been replaced by a precise stateliness on the part of constant editor Thelma Schoonmaker and a whole miniseries's worth of functionally bland cinematography on the part of Rodrigo Prieto, with the semi-Gumpian figure of De Niro's Sheeran serving as the largely-unperturbed, modestly-sociopathic center of a story which takes on the basic format of Casino (De Niro providing a canned history of his character's slice of America, though Pesci does not get to join in this time), sans brio and sans verve.  On the plus side, it's a Casino that never gets numbingly repetitive, as well as a Casino that gives up even trying to pretend to have an interest in women, or even an interest in its male characters' interest in women, which is jarringly annoying while you're watching it—The Irishman is a 209 minute movie that dispenses with the end of Frank Sheeran's relationship with his first wife and the beginning of his relationship with his second inside a single line of narration and basically one or two cuts—but even that is probably for the best, considering that Casino often pretended to have such an interest, and every time it did it was ghastly.  But it's still part of how The Irishman is only theoretically about aging and regret and life: Sheeran's most important daughter (as an adult Anna Paquin, Lucy Gallina as a child) provides the film its "conscience" in that she is permitted five or six displeased reaction shots across its runtime.  Just as theoretically, The Irishman becomes a retrospective look upon one of the crucial legacies of American cinema.

In practice, it's more like a repetition of that legacy with very little new insight.  In Steve Zaillian's screenplay, based on the real Frank Sheeran's late-life tall-tales, one recognizes that The Irishman is fundamentally just a piece of flabbed-up conspiracy fiction: an Executive Action that purports to explain what (allegedly) happened to Jimmy Hoffa in 1975, instead of to JFK in 1963.  (Inevitably, The Irishman does also explain its version of what happened to JFK.)  It's more humane and emotional than the bullet-pointed memorandum of Executive Action, but of course it has nothing of its crazed ingenuity—I hope you're sitting down, but Jimmy Hoffa was assassinated by mobsters—and it's more than twice as long.  (One wonders in deadly earnest just how many of the "26 million people" that Netflix claimed watched The Irishman actually finished it.)

Even so, it's no accident that The Irishman functions best, and indeed even functions quite well, when Pacino is a force that De Niro and Pesci have to contend with.  I'm not much in agreement with the most abiding criticism of the film, that De Niro is doing little besides offering his likeness; his character might be somewhat dim-bulbed and defined by his lack of interiority, but by no means is he wholly inexpessive, and De Niro gets a truly lovely scene where sadness washes over his face for something like three solid minutes.  Still, it's hard to argue that Pacino is not by leaps and bounds the film's most dynamic figure, serving up a larger-than-life caricature of the egoistic labor leader who dominates scene after scene.  Pesci's also rather good as Sheeran's more subdued father figure, to whom Sheeran's unstated loyalties ultimately lie despite all the overenunciated protestations of "brotherhood" from Pacino's Hoffa.  This is only about two of The Irishman's three hours, however, and the other hour is almost objectively less interesting: a big part of it is Sheeran's pre-Hoffa life, which plays well enough even if not all of it is strictly necessary—especially when we're not even supposed to conceive of Sheeran as an emotional anchor during this extremely long journey.

Which again raises the issue of The Irishman's unjustifiable length: Scorsese's previous movie, Silence, was also very long—and, undoubtedly, it was even slower—but it used length and slowness to grapple with the spiritual crisis at its heart, and in doing so Scorsese drew a masterpiece out of the material.  The Irishman is long and slow mostly in order to be long and slow.  Sheeran's origin story is here, I think, mainly because he said it happened; likewise, the smaller but more damaging part of the film, the framing narrative in the "present," is entirely dispensable, and this is here solely so Scorsese's film can gesture inarticulately toward the idea of the survivor who was diminished by old age, and degraded by the dehumanization of the mob machine.  The last twenty minutes in particular are useless for any other purpose.  Yet they still never do anything more than just gesture.

Which, in turn, means that The Irishman doesn't come close to earning the right to exist in the form it took: it is a movie, mostly about people saying "cocksucker" in rooms, that cost almost as much as a superhero blockbuster, purely because Martin Scorsese wanted to make a movie with his ancient buddies (and Al Pacino) returned to the bloom of—well, middle-age, but still, that's something.  Technologically, it's marvelous and futuristic.  Yet somehow it fails to grasp the very thing its "seven ages of De Niro" conceit, its computer-generated faces, and its intense runtime were, in combination, supposed to provide—that is, the feeling of time bearing down upon its protagonist as he inches closer toward his lonely oblivion in 2003, in part because nothing about the film invites you to give a crap.  The parts of the movie that were truly worthwhile, Hoffa: The Betrayal or whatever, had they been made with conventional means, could have cost a tenth as much as The Irishman actually did.  It would have been better for it, even if it lacked the resonance (and/or the marketing hook) of having the stars of Goodfellas, Casino, and The Godfathers play versions of themselves as younger men who are maybe sometimes a little too arthritic to be entirely convincing as top-notch mafia hitmen.  As it stands, it is very much the massive indulgence it always looked like, the kind of waste of resources that could make one slightly ill when one considers the implications: for the same price, literally a dozen mid-budget originals could have been made by a dozen new filmmakers.  I'm not sure you could pick a worse standard bearer for "real" cinema than this.

Nonetheless, that does not go to the quality of the object itself.  It is still Scorsese, so even if it's sometimes awfully logey, it still takes almost all of its 209 minutes before it becomes a genuine endurance test, though I admit to laughing out loud at the prospect of taking on this fucking behemoth in a movie theater.  (Ironically, The Irishman seems built to be the very antithesis of the "theatrical experience.")  Yet even the worst bits have flashes of dry mob movie humor built around modestly interesting mob movie scenarios.  The best bits aren't amazing—outside of its bona fides as a tech demo, The Irishman is never amazing—but Scorsese does manage a feeling of tragic doom over every scene with Hoffa, one that's compounded by Pacino-Hoffa's apparent belief that it's his very hubris that makes him invincible.  And since this is indeed the majority of The Irishman, it would be churlish to say it is not, on balance, good.  But it's nowhere near as good as it seems like it ought to be: like Silence, The Irishman was something Scorsese obsessively pursued for years; unlike Silence, whose long-gestating, fussed-over production gave it an immaculate rigidity that served its themes perfectly, The Irishman just feels like three hours chasing sunk costs.

Score: 6/10

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