Friday, December 6, 2019

Dancing on Eggshells with "The Irishman"

Martin Scorsese, perhaps the most famous alumnus of the Roger Corman School  of Film, won fame by chronicling society’s underbelly in hard-hitting dramas that featured guns, wiseguys, and lethal vendettas. Though he has made out-of-character contemplative work like Kundun and The Age of Innocence, as well as the charming family film Hugo, it’s still the gangsters movies that seal his reputation. No one is better than Scorsese at capturing the mania of a mind run amok with a sense of its own power.

But I’ve got to say: despite all the critical acclaim for his newest movie outing, I didn’t really fall for The Irishman. Whereas top reviewers in places like the New York Times saluted this film as a brilliant example of filmmaking craft, I had a tough time sitting through 3 ½ hours of meandering storytelling featuring a huge cast of characters I couldn’t entirely follow. (It’s hard to overlook the presence of Scorsese favorite Harvey Keitel in any movie, but I’m still trying to figure out when exactly – as mobster Angelo Bruno – Keitel showed up in this one.)

That’s not to say there’s nothing to appreciate in The Irishman. It’s a film that’s beautifully shot and full of memorable moments. Like two mob wives, dressed to the tens in garish fashions from the 1970s, who can’t be in a car for more than fifteen minutes before wanting to stop for a cigarette break. Or a rival union leader who royally pisses off  the fastidious Jimmy Hoffa by showing up to a Miami meeting late, and wearing Bermuda shorts.  And of course there’s the central triangle of stellar performances by Al Pacino as Hoffa, Joe Pesci as the quietly dangerous Russell Bufalino, and star/producer Robert De Niro as title character Frank Sheeran, he who (in gangster lingo) “paints houses.”  As he boasts to Hoffa in a get-acquainted phone call, Frank also does some carpentry on the side.

De Niro’s Irishman moves through the film as the confident, quietly competent right-hand man to various marginal types.  As an actor, he finds his biggest challenge in playing the elderly Frank Sheeran, who’s outlived everyone who matters in his world and is now leading a glum existence in a nursing home. There he’s reduced to looking for solace within religious ritual. His family is gone, and the fruits of his years of loyalty have turned out to be bitter indeed.

For the price of loyalty turns out to be a major theme in The Irishman. I don’t think it’s accidental that the film has a lot to say about matters affecting the current state of our country. As Hoffa’s decades-long story unfolds, we are reminded from time to time about the parallel doings within the nation at large. Like, for instance, the assassination of President Kennedy, seen by this film’s characters via a TV screen in a barroom. Just like mob bosses, it seems,  presidents can be bumped off, leaving behind a trail of questions that can’t be answered. Of course JFK’s death occurred back in 1963. But the film seems current in its fascination with power-brokers, and yes-men, and with those whose high status depends on them. As played with manic energy by Pacino, Hoffa is a megalomaniac who seems all too familiar. Alternately domineering and sentimental, he is convinced that no one but he can be the legitimate voice of the Teamsters Union. Demanding fealty of everyone around him, he mistakes it for love.  Too bad for Hoffa that the world turns out to be not quite the place he has imagined. We still don’t know what really happened.

No comments:

Post a Comment