Scorsese is back! But wait, it gets better… Following a 13-year hiatus from the gangster genre, he returns to the fold with a 3.5 hour-long epic starring all your favourite wise guys from the 80s and 90s. The Irishman, also titled I Heard You Paint Houses in the opening credits (there must have been some sort of mix-up in the marketing department), sees Robert De Niro return to Scorsese’s roll call as real-life gangster Frank Sheeran, a lorry driver turned crook made infamous by his association with the Bufalino crime family.
I must admit, after seeing the cast, the trailer and the reviews that followed, I was very excited as I sat down to watch The Irishman. Not only do we get a Scorsese gangster film, but we get a Scorsese gangster film with Harvey Keitel, we get Joe Pesci back from retirement and, to top it all off, we get De Niro and Pacino, two of Hollywood’s greatest actors, sharing screen time for only the third time in cinema history.
There’s a lot that really works in the film. Firstly, the direction is textbook Scorsese, visually it has less of a glossy feel than his previous endeavours within the genre, and aside from some issues with the de-aging technology, it really does look fantastic. The soundtrack is superb also (it could very well be a B-side to the Goodfellas soundtrack), but the real highlight are the fantastic performances.
De Niro is reliable as ever in the lead role, it’s a real treat to see Keitel return to serious cinema and Ray Romano as lawyer Bill Bufalino is particularly enjoyable. The real casting masterstroke however was doggedly talking Joe Pesci out of retirement – Scorsese hounded him for years to take the role of crime family patriarch Russel Bufalino. I’d actually forgotten how good an actor Pesci is, he really is phenomenal here. I would be in no way surprised to see him get the nod for a best supporting actor award at this year’s Oscars.
Sadly, here endeth the positive criticism. For all its strengths, the film has a lot of fundamental issues that really damage the overall experience. It’s overly long, muddled thematically, unfocused narratively and in need of a serious edit.
Plot-wise, the film provides a more ‘real’ take on the gangster genre than we are used to seeing. Presumably this was Scorsese’s attempt at moving with the times, but it doesn’t quite hit the mark. People love Goodfellas because, for better or worse, it romanticises the criminal underworld, it’s glossy and full of over-saturated imagery and over-saturated characters. What The Irishman serves up is tepid by comparison. The fact that it’s even being uttered in the same breath as Goodfellas is laughable.
Is it a case of expectation of a film not meeting the reality? I would say no. There is nothing wrong with telling a much more grounded story, and indeed Scorsese is no stranger to making that kind of film. But unfortunately, The Irishman isn’t particularly refined; the script is largely forgettable, the character interactions aren’t exciting or memorable and there is a hell of a lot of humour that falls flat.
The real problem though is the telling of the story itself. It starts out in a similar vein to Goodfellas (almost identical in fact): a rags to riches story about a civilian entering the criminal underworld and making his way up the ladder. But we arguably only get introduced to the main plot thread of the film well over an hour into it.
I’m not sure what film Scorsese felt he was making, but now having watched it, it is clearly a film about the relationship between De Niro’s Sheeran and Pacino’s Jimmy Hoffa. What we actually get is more of a Frank Sheeran biopic that segues into a story about the Sheeran-Hoffa relationship, and then subsequently (and rather unsuccessfully) segues into a sort of gangster genre swan song. Essentially, the film covers a lot of narrative ground yet achieves very little with its numerous plot threads.
Scorsese has always been great at serving up likeable anti-heroes; Henry Hill, Jordan Belfort and Travis Bickle to name a few. But in the case of The Irishman, I found myself feeling fairly ambivalent towards almost all the characters. Everything has been dialled down in the name of realism, there’s no caricature bad guy like Tommy Devito, there’s no lovable Italian mob boss like Pauli, the characters in The Irishman are bland and understated, and I just didn’t care about any one of them.
I also feel this is a film that was very much made for an American audience. The disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa is one of the big mysteries of recent American history and you can almost see Scorsese’s delight as he plays with audience expectations regarding the fate of the character. We get a long, protracted set-piece that culminates in Hoffa’s death, but for a non-American audience who have perhaps only heard the name ‘Hoffa’ in passing, it’s all a little innocuous. The scene in question, as with the rest of the film, is expertly made, but it just isn’t emotionally impactful. I’ve got to be honest, I found Hoffa fairly annoying and was actually quite pleased to see the back of him.
The Hoffa death scene also serves as the dramatic crescendo to the film, meaning the subsequent hour really is just the remaining characters dying of old age. I’ve seen people referring to this as the saddest gangster film ever made, but that just isn’t the case. Narratively, we need to care about the characters for the emotional payoffs to work but, in the case of The Irishman, the character development and therefor investment in those characters is lacking.
It’s rare that I disagree with both critic and audience reviews so drastically, but I was very underwhelmed by The Irishman, I certainly won’t be rushing to watch it again. If you removed Scorsese’s directing credit and recast the main roles with unknown actors, I’m certain the critical consensus would tell a different story.