Review: The Irishman (2019)

The Irishman



Martin Scorsese


Steven Zaillian (Book: Charles Brandt)


3h 29min


Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Harvey Keitel, Ray Romano, Bobby Cannavale, Anna Paquin, Stephen Graham, Stephanie Kurtzuba, Jack Huston, Kathrine Narducci, Jesse Plemons

MPAA Rating

R for pervasive language and strong violence

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Martin Scorsese is one of our greatest working directors and with The Irishman, he returns to a genre he has become synonymous with: crime films. His long absence from the genre, 13 years since The Departed and 24 years since Casino, may explain why some of his characteristic flourishes are here, but so are his recent tendencies towards self-indulgence.

Starring Robert De Niro as an Irish union man, the film follows his lengthy career in service to the Teamsters, specifically its notorious leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). As the film shifts back and forth between the present and the past, we come to understand the venality of union politics in the 1960s and 1970s as well as the organized crime influences that made that all happen.

De Niro’s understated performance is uncharacteristic for the actor who has been well known for his larger-than-life acting in films such as Raging Bull. It allows the more bombastic performance of Pacino to feel larger than life, exemplary of Hoffa himself. While De Niro and Scorsese have worked together a handful of times in the past, this marks Scorsese’s first film with Pacino was focusing more on working with Scorsese’s 70s contemporaries, filmmakers like Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma, and Sidney Lumet.

Also back for his first feature film since 2010’s Love Ranch, Joe Pesci owes his career to Scorsese with his second feature outing in 1980’s Raging Bull, for which Pesci earned his first Oscar nomination. Historically, few actors can say they can attribute all of their nominations to the same director, but Pesci has earned three and all three (Bull, 1990’s Goodfellas, and this film) were in Scorsese films. Pesci’s mafia boss here is more laid back than he’s ever been, which is a nice change of pace for the semi-retired actor.

The rest of the cast delivers solid work with Harvey Keitel, Ray Romano, and Bobby Cannavale noteworthy in relatively limited roles. Scorsese’s inability to dig into female characters is one of his biggest failings. He gives short shrift here to Anna Paquin as De Niro’s daughter who knows what her father really does for a living and won’t have anything to do with him as a result. Her role has few lines, but she does well with withering looks, which is more than can really be said of the other women in the film, Stephanie Kurtzuba as De Niro’s character’s wife and Katherine Narducci as Pesci’s. They have a few lines as well, but aren’t pivotal to any of the film’s themes or scenes.

Working off a script by the usually dependable Steven Zaillian, Scorsese and his cadre of frequent collaborators have crafted a generally satisfying saga, but the film drags in many places. Editor Thelma Schoonmaker seems to forget that pacing is a key element of an editor’s job. While Schoonmaker skillfully winds all of the narrative threads together, the long spans of tedium showcase either a lack of interest in getting somewhere or a directorial push to linger for ego’s sake. Either reason reflects poorly on Schoonmaker who has worked with Scorsese the longest and should have more influence with the man than anyone else.

Scorsese is a director who has earned his reputation by delivering some of the seminal films of the the last five decades; however, his appreciation of cinema and his dedication to preservation are more noteworthy than too many of his films themselves. The Irishman, like The Departed before it, doesn’t improve the crime drama genre in which he made a name for himself. Rather both are fitting examples of comparative inferiority to much of what he’s done in the past. Perfecting a genre is a noble endeavor, but when the genre itself has already spawned some of history’s most legendary films, dipping into the well without pushing the genre forward does more harm than good. As good a director as Scorsese can be, The Irishman is less exciting and less vital than a lot of his best work in the last thirty years, making it a sometimes satisfying, but otherwise uninspired entry in his filmography.

April 20, 2020

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