“The Irishman” is not a very good movie. I want to put that out there right away. Unlike Martin Scorsese, I didn’t want to pointlessly draw this whole thing out to an interminable length.
Scorsese’s latest three-and-half-hour slog is a Netflix-produced film through familiar territory—a trip back to the same well that provided us with classic stories of mob violence, and the mafia lifestyle like “Goodfellas” and “Casino.” Unfortunately, the well has dried up, and instead of seeking out new sources for creative juices, Scorsese has decided to frack the earth beneath to try and create one more operatic crime epic. And just like fracking, the final product is messy and toxic.
The story of “The Irishman” is interesting enough. Frank (Robert De Niro) is a WWII veteran-turned-teamster-truck driver, looking to get in good with local mobsters who run his city. He meets Russell (Joe Pesci), who becomes his mafia mentor and helps guide him through the Dons and dont’s of the criminal underworld. Eventually, Frank crosses paths with the legendary hustler, Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), who becomes one of Frank’s best friends and, eventually, a massive liability.
My biggest issue with “The Irishman” is how fake it seems. Scorsese spent millions of dollars using technology to digitally alter his cast so they could play younger and older versions of themselves. When the movie starts, we meet Frank who is supposed to be in his late 30s. Though they were able to erase the lines from De Niro’s face, they didn’t do anything about his posture or the way he moves. The result looks like an old man wearing a suit made of a younger man’s skin. The grotesque meat puppets never really capture the spirit or energy of the characters. There’s a scene where “young” Frank goes to beat up a grocer, and it looks like my grandfather trying to step on a bug, after having a few too many Scotch and sodas.
Pacino in particular comes across hilariously haggard—looking more like an 80-year-old man in a terrible jet-black Eddie Munster wig than a 50-year-old Hoffa. Every time his scary mug showed up on screen, I screamed “Kill it with fire!” It is the stuff of nightmares.
Joe Pesci is the only actor who manages to get come across as genuine, but it’s mainly because he’s playing the oldest character in the movie and requires less computer-assisted, age-defying lotion. I can’t stress enough how unintentionally hilarious it is watching a movie that is doing its best, spending 10s of millions of dollars to convince us De Niro is a 40-year-old-man, even though he looks like Grandpa after using too much Just for Men.
However, I genuinely enjoyed the final 30 minutes of the film. It provided a brief glimpse into the incarceration of these larger-than-life personalities, stripped of their pinky rings and power trips, watching a bunch of tired old men dealing with the sad reality that the power they fought so hard to keep, ultimately, doesn’t lead anywhere fulfilling. I wish more of the movie had examined that side of the story instead of the paint-by-numbers mob story and frequent historical references. For a movie this long, there was very little in terms of explaining “why” behind Frank’s choices. I kept thinking of the classic line from “Goodfellas”: “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.” That line is a simple insight into a character that pays dividends as he continues to dig a deeper and deeper hole.
I wish “The Irishman” had a quarter of the energy of “Goodfellas,” but these are old men trying to play a younger man’s game, and all the computer trickery in the world can’t change it.
This movie is a creepy tech demo that fails miserably. The story, the acting, the direction, and creative choices, they all end up in a messy mishmash that feels like a Martin Scorsese mixtape. I can only recommend “The Irishman” as a cautionary tale for using technology as a crutch in dramatic storytelling. It reminds me of a great line from “Jurassic Park” about the perils of technology. To paraphrase, Scorsese spent so much time preoccupied with whether or not he could, he didn’t stop to think if he should.