Film Legends De Niro, Pacino, Pesci Aren’t Enough to Save ‘The Irishman’ From Itself

Christopher Karr


Scorsese. De Niro. Pacino. Pesci — out of retirement for a one-time exclusive engagement. Keitel. Netflix. $159 million budget. Cutting-edge de-aging VFX. Three-and-a-half-hour running time. Jimmy Hoffa. Gangsters. Oscar campaign. Best Picture.


It’s easy to process all the buzz surrounding Scorsese’s latest film, The Irishman, and think, blithely, how could this not be a slam dunk? 


It’s also easy to formulate glib questions. I would know, because I’ve had the same thought over the past year or so in antsy anticipation of the film. After seeing The Irishman on the big screen, I realize I asked the wrong question. Rather, I should have asked myself, how could this be a slam dunk? 


This movie is such a big bet at the Hollywood table that the stars — both celestial and cinematic — would have to align in the most compelling way for such a feat to be pulled off with finesse and style. In a sense, Scorsese’s partnership with Netflix has probably created more fiery hoops for himself to jump through.


A true artist to the core of his being, Scorsese comes to life as a creator when he has a visceral response to the material. That’s what makes The Wolf of Wall Street his best film and probably the shortest three-hour movie ever made. Something about the cinematic possibilities of that particular narrative sparked something in him that inspired pure kinetic energy onscreen. The same can be said for GoodfellasCasinoTaxi Driver and, oddly enough, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, his most underrated effort. 


But here and there, Scorsese takes on projects that seem tailored directly towards the sensibilities that he’s expressed in some of his most lauded works. But a movie like The Departed, which I wanted to like so desperately, over the course of multiple viewings, simply doesn’t come together in any sense. There are scenes spiked with inspiration and the excitement of discovery, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that Scorsese never found his way into the overcooked, all-over-the-place script. The same general problems are apparent in uneven efforts like The AviatorShutter Island, and the unwatchable and ludicrous Silence


The Irishman is a reheated retread, and its shortcomings might not be as apparent and glaring if the running time of the movie wasn’t so flagrantly merciless. If the expansive series of events that transpire within Steven Zaillian’s doorstop of a screenplay were streamlined into a tight two hours, the film might fly by more breezily. But the pairing of Netflix and Scorsese, in a pointed bid to lock in the Best Picture Oscar that evaded the streaming giant last year, has turned an interesting experiment into a gargantuan event tantamount to the Second Coming. 



The olympian overreach of The Irishman ultimately stifles its effectiveness. It almost feels like an elaborate con. Technically, all the bells and whistles are ringing in tandem, but not exactly. Technically, Pacino and De Niro act onscreen in an awards season epic, but not really. Technically, this is the mob movie to end all mob movies, but is it really? And if so, what, precisely, does it have to say? 


The story follows Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran (De Niro), a truck driver who gets involved with a mobster (Pesci) and eventually becomes closely associated with the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino). The central action of the plot plays out within a protracted flashback bookended by Sheeran’s life in a retirement home, wherein he purportedly reminisces and reflects upon the life choices that led him to where he will likely die — just another old man whose past achievements will go unheralded as he marks his final days on earth. 


There is conceivable substance and texture imbedded within the framework of this premise, but by the end of the film (and several times throughout), I couldn’t locate a convincing answer to the following essential dramatic questions: Why this story? Why now? Why is this story about this protagonist worth telling right now? If there is a compelling reason beyond “just because,” it eluded me. Over the course of its 209-minute running time, there is no palpable sense of urgency on display. There are many scenes that range in intensity and subtlety, and they’re occasionally punctuated with muted bursts of violence, but there’s not enough narrative momentum to make the story of the movie completely immersive and engaging. 


The challenges of translating this script to the screen are compounded by the weird de-aging special effects. There are a few moments where the technology is transformative — particularly with Pacino; why it works more often with him than other cast members, I have no idea. But for the most part, the de-aging works against the screen, against the scenes, against the performances and, finally, against the movie. Too often — especially, for whatever reason, in wide shots — De Niro and Pesci look like they have oversized cartoon heads clumsily grafted onto decades-older bodies. 


The shortsightedness of the filmmakers is on display in an unsettling way; they didn’t take into account two fundamental aspects of acting that make all the difference: eyes and physicality. Scorsese expressed concerns about how the de-aging affected the eyes of the performers earlier this year on A24’s “A Bigger Canvas” podcast, saying, “Certain shots need more work on the eyes.” But an even bigger problem is the fact that the actors, now in their mid-70s or older, don’t have the physicality of their younger selves. So, as a result, you see moments where a supposed-to-be-mid-40s De Niro struggles to put on a jacket. Even though Pacino is supposed to look 20 or so years younger in his scenes as Hoffa, he has the signature slump that’s become associated with his performances from the past two decades. 


If audiences weren’t so intimately acquainted with watching these actors age onscreen over the past half century, it’s possible (although, I think, unlikely) that the de-aging could have worked some sly magic in the film. But legends like De Niro, Pacino and Pesci are too familiar to us. Their iconic faces have been burned onto celluloid too many times for us to buy into these CGI caricatures that have been rather lazily foisted upon us. Perhaps even more so than their bodies, their eyes betray them all. It doesn’t matter how much the faces themselves are rewound back through time. Their eyes convey extra decades of life that the smudgy, strange-looking VFX simply cannot revise. 


In the final analysis, I couldn’t get past the thought process of Scorsese’s latest effort. Rather than cast younger actors, the filmmakers created more work for themselves; more work that, in the end, doesn’t quite justify the hard work required. Of course, it’s apparent that younger actors weren’t cast because there are no legendary actors that could have added marquee buzz like De Niro, Pacino and Pesci (who, in all honesty, looks reluctant to act, bemused to be involved, and unwilling to be summoned out of retirement for a role that’s lacking panache). Also, if younger actors were cast to play counterparts to these Italian titans of cinema, the movie would be even farther from coming together. The plot is cumbersome and meandering, and the direction never quite synchs up with the script. When the scenes come to life, the direction is pedestrian; when the direction comes to life, the script sinks into stasis and tedium. 



Being a Scorsese movie, The Irishman isn’t a failure by any means. There are some remarkable scenes that are so playful that they spring off the screen. One of the most brilliantly digressive intervals involves De Niro’s Sheeran walking out in a huff after he perceives himself to be the target of Hoffa’s speechifying vitriol. (Yes, Shouty Al makes consistent appearances.) Pacino’s Hoffa finds himself in the position of clarifying to De Niro’s Sheeran that the chewing out wasn’t directed at him specifically, which creates this unexpectedly warm and disarming moment when one icon has to apologetically talk another icon off the building ledge. The carefully guarded egos float to the surface in a scene of unforeseen elegance, tenderness and wit. The best moments benefit from a digressive slow-burn quality that elevates the nuance of the performances. 


Strange as it is to say, The Irishman might be the first Scorsese movie that will look better on the small screen. Maybe the strained CGI will seem a bit more relaxed in the semi-darkness of the living room, and not as insistent and contrived as it appears on an enormous screen. Still, noticeable flaws and all, it should remain in the upper echelon of Netflix movies — an achievement that can stand proudly beside Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma and Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories, a film I prefer over just about anything available at any given time on Netflix. It’s well worth having a Netflix subscription, but if The Irishman were strictly a theatrical release, I would be tempted to suggest waiting for it to arrive on VOD. 


Author Bio:

Christopher Karr is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.


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