Al Pacino as Jimmy Hoffa; Robert DeNiro as Frank Sheeran

Published November 16, 2019 by Robert W. Butler at Butler’s Cinema Scene

My rating: B (Now at the Alamo Drafthouse, Screenland Armour and Standees) | 209 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Martin Scorsese’s much-anticipated “The Irishman” is a good movie.

Not a great one.

It’s been described as the filmmaker’s ultimate gangster epic, yet it feels less like a conventional celebration of tough-guy ethos than a slow (3 1/2 hour’s worth), mournful meditation on sins unacknowledged and unforgiven.

In fact, Scorsese seems to have gone out of his way to avoid the sort of eye-catching set pieces (like the long nightclub tracking shot from “GoodFellas”) that marked many of his earlier efforts. “The Irishman” is almost ploddingly straightforward.

Steve Zaillian’s screenplay follows the title character, real-life contract killer Frank Sheehan (Robert DeNiro), from his early days as a truck driver with a taste for theft  to his residency in an old folk’s home.

(Now seems a good time to comment on the much-ballyhooed CG “youthening” of the actors…it’s so good you don’t even think about it. No waxy skin tones or blurry edges — damn near flawless.)

The bulk of the movie, set in the ’50s and ’60s, chronicles Frank’s association with the Teamsters  and his friendship with union president Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), who in a phone call introduces himself to Frank with the statement: “I heard you paint houses.”  That’s code for acting as a hired assassin, a role Frank will perform for Hoffa and others for a quarter century.

The film centers on a long 1975 car trip in which Sheehan and his mentor, crime family boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), and their wives drive from Philadelphia to Detroit, ostensibly to attend the wedding of a colleague’s daughter.  At various stages in the journey Frank’s memory is jogged to recall past exploits. He doesn’t realize until late in the trip that Russell has another agenda — the assassination of Jimmy Hoffa who, after serving a four-year sentence in federal prison, is now upsetting the apple cart by attempting to reclaim the presidency of the Teamsters Union.

Robert DeNiro, Joe Pesci

All the insider dirt dished by “The Irishman” is interesting, at least in an intellectual sense.  The film makes a strong case for how Hoffa vanished back in ’75.

But emotionally the film is frustratingly neutral. It’s near impossible to identify with any of the characters; moreover, there’s none of the romanticizing that was at work on Scorsese’s earlier gangster epics. Perhaps at this stage in his career the director felt the need to de-mythologize…but it comes at the expense of entertainment.

You’d think that with DeNiro in charge, Frank Sheehan would emerge as a dominant figure. But DeNiro plays him as a guy who, for the sake of survival, has shaved off all the rough edges from his personality. He’s quiet and reasonable, follows orders without complaint, and apparently never battles with his conscience (not even after killing a man he has long regarded as his friend).

In short, DeNiro’s Sheehan isn’t particularly interesting. Late in the film we see his fruitless attempts to reunite with his estranged daughter (Anna Paquin), but it’s a rare moment of late-breaking vulnerability in a life of cool calculation.

Likewise, Pesci’s Russell Bufalino oozes quiet menace beneath an affable front, but sets off few fireworks.

Things are enlivened somewhat by Pacino’s Hoffa, a bombastic figure with a politician’s instincts and few qualms about ordering mayhem when it suits his purposes. But likable?  Naw.

“The Irishman’s” supporting cast is strong and deep (Harvey Keitel, Bobby Cannavale, Jesse Plemons, Jack Huston, Ray Romano, Steven Van Zandt, just for starters), yet few of the players leave deep impressions. One who does is standup Sebastian Maniscalco, a genuine scene stealer as mob madman “Crazy Joe” Gallo…it’s the kind of scenery-chewing role Pesci used to excel at.

There are a few  “mobster moments,” recreations of Sheehan’s hits. But they’re handled in an almost cursory manner and at no point does Frank himself seem to be in jeopardy, which minimizes our engagement and leaves little room for suspense.

The filmmakers have come up with one lovely trick, though.  As each new character is introduced the image freezes and an on-screen title gives us the individual’s name, position and the date and manner of his death (“Shot six times in the face, 1968”). It becomes a running joke; just about everybody in Frank’s circle will meet a violent end.

Did “The Irishman” have to be so self-indulgently long?  No, though it will be interesting to see if one’s perceptions of the film change going from a theatrical presentation to viewing it on TV (it debuts on Netflix in late November).  Is it better absorbed in one butt-numbing sitting or in several chunks via streaming? Stay tuned.

“The Irishman” only really truly sinks a hook in its final scenes, when an aged Frank Sheehan chats with a young priest. He’s got plenty to confess, but will not or cannot utter the words that would — in the Catholic faith, anyway — bring relief. He’ll carry his sins to the grave.

| Robert W. Butler

Read the original review and more reviews at Butler’s Cinema Scene

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Robert W. Butler for 41 years reviewed films for the Kansas City Star. In May 2011 he was downsized.

He couldn’t take the hint.

OKAY, so here’s the deal. I write mostly about movies. One good thing about no longer writing for the paper is that I’m free to ignore the big dumb Hollywood turkeys that don’t interest me. So don’t expect every blessed release to be written about here. Many films aren’t worth the effort. Besides, at my age it’s not the $8. It’s the two hours.

UPDATE: OCTOBER, 2014: Well, here’s an interesting twist. The Star wants me back as a freelance film reviewer!!! Apparently enough time has passed that they cannot be accused of firing me so that they can rehire me at a fraction of my original pay (I gather the federal government frowns upon that practice.) So from now on I will probably be reviewing a movie a week for the newspaper.