The Irishman

Let me start off with a couple of justifications. This is a Netflix created project, designed to be shown on their streaming service. As such, there are doubts about whether it should be included in my usual project since I try to focus on theatrical material. Last year I participated in some spirited discussions of “Roma” based on the premise that it is not “cinema”. This seems oddly ironic given the take Martin Scorsese has on the comic book movies that dominate theaters these days. Unlike “Roma” however, I did see this in a theater and it was an exclusive run before any streaming of it on the home network is available. The major theater chains were unwilling to book this without a traditional window of exclusive exhibition, so I still think my doubts are relevant. There are some mitigating issues however. First, this is a Martin Scorsese project and he clearly sees it as a film. Second, I have made exceptions in the past about what I cover on this site and I have written about documentaries or “films” made for premium channels in the past. I have also covered related material, concerts for instance that are inspired by movies. So my rules are a little flexible. Finally, I think the battle will be lost in the next few years and I will be doomed to be a collaborator in the destruction of the cinema going experience by day and date VOD, so I may as well start kowtowing now to get into practice. I will still scream about it but lets face it, my finger in the dike is will not stop it.

Last night’s screening at the Egyptian was sold out, there was not a seat to be had and there were people standing in the wings, the whole time the movie was playing. Anticipation was high and I was quite excited about seeing the film. It is a solid piece of gangster story telling told by the master of that genre, but it is not the masterpiece of his career. The three and a half hour running time is very noticeable, especially in the last forty minutes of the movie. This could easily be broken into two parts for the television mini series presentation it probably deserves. The sprawling story covers five decades and it is told through a series of flashbacks and forwards that also make the pacing seem slower than it actually is. The fact that the finale plays out in one long sequence with the main character in a wheelchair dying of cancer, feels anti climatic although it does contain some of the only moments of emotion that the main character exhibits.

“Mean Streets” was low level street gangsters, “Goodfellas” was gangsters on drugs, “Casino” was gangsters and gambling, “The Departed” was gangsters with police corruption, “Gangs of New York” was historical gangsters and “The Irishman” is gangsters and unions. The same template that was used for “GoodFellas” and “Casino” is found here. We are given a narrator who is telling us the story as we see it play out. There are beats of violence every few minutes and grim humor pops up occasionally to keep it entertaining. The actors are all fine, but this movie lacks some of the grace points of those previous classics. The bravura one take Steadicam nightclub scene in “Goodfellas” was a moment that made that film special. There is no equivalent film making technique here. Joe Pesci was lightning on screen in both “Goodfellas” and “Casino”, no such character exists in this trudge through Teamster/Mafia politics of the 60s and 70s. Sharon Stone was a dynamic female character in “Casino” there are virtually no important women characters featured in this story. The pacing of those two movies, especially in the last segments built into a crescendo that made us quickly in hale to try to catch our breath. “The Irishman” does little to keep us from nodding off at the end except hope that we care how Frank manages to reconcile himself with the world.

Joe Pesci came out of semi-retirement to make the movie, but his character could have been done by any number of actors. His unique volatility and vocal delivery is never called upon by Scorsese to make the film sing.  Harvey Kietel is in the movie, but I will be amazed if you remember that at the conclusion of the running time. His character is so far in the background that we only know what he thinks through his orders being repeated by those he supposedly conveyed them to.   Robert DeNiro is the star of the film, and he turns in a credible performance but nothing close to earlier work in this milieu. The character of Frank Sheeran is a cipher in most of his scenes. DeNiro is trying to make a nearly personality free low level thug into an interesting character, but it is only the alleged acts of violence he claims to have carried out that make him noticeable.  The hollow award that the character gets during his time as a union president would be hard to justify given the lack of any outgoing charisma.

The actor who scores best in the film is Al Pacino as Jimmy Hoffa. Having been parodied for years for his throaty overacting in recent films, Pacino is more realistic here. There are a few scenes where the bellicose Hoffa goes off but Pacino plays them in character rather than making him a character. The rest of the time he seems to be a committed and forceful man who was too pig headed to notice that those closest to him were the ones who were the most dangerous. The simple scenes that Pacino plays opposite DeNiro’s on screen daughter are the ones that sell us on him as a real person. The contrast in the relationship between Hoffa and Sheeran’s family versus Pesci and DeNiro who mimic family love but can’t really sell it, that is the best directed part of the film, but it’s only enough to make Pacino’s character come to life, not enough to make the film do so.

Two other things that I saw as drawbacks to the film include the early de-aging CGI and the musical score. I got used to the CGI miracle after a few minutes, but that does not mean that it worked perfectly. As this technology gets better, I think actors will have to be careful because they could be replaced by AI created performers that might get us to respond to them by reading analytics of audience reactions. The other mild complaint is the score by Robbie Robertson. Maybe it is a good thing that there is no memorable theme or consistent melody running through th film story, but I think that makes it harder to feel the film is memorable. The only bits that were significant to me were the doo wop clips and the background music in particular scenes. Jerry Vale was the musical high note of the film, and while he was a fine vocalist, I don’t think that is enough to hang your musical hat on for a film.

In summary, you have seen this before and it has been better done in other Scorsese films, but that does not make this a bad movie. The film is quite good and it almost convinces us that this is the real story. All of the performances are solid but nothing historic that people will look back on and say, “that was a milestone” in that guys career. The history lesson we get of mob infiltration of the unions works pretty well at getting to the heart of the idea, even if the details are invented. There is enough blood and betrayal to clearly mark this as a Scorsese film, but in the end, most of out characters get wacked by cancer and heart disease rather than other mob guys or the cops. It is a little indulgent but a story that is pretty well told using tried and true techniques we have experienced many times before.

 

Jo Jo Rabbit

This may be on two distinct sets of lists at the end of the year. Some folks are going to find that it is a misfire that fails to manage the complex shift in tone that occurs on a regular basis in the story. Others will be beguiled by the delicate balancing act between the sweet and the bitter. It took me to the last couple of shots to decide which group I am going to fall into. Count me enchanted.

The lead character, Jo Jo is a ten year old boy who is a microcosm of Germany under Hitler. He seems to be hypnotized by the promise of the Fuhrer and the propaganda machine that engulfs the whole country. Little boys and nations can become obsessed with symbolism, and the swastika, uniforms and military pomp all sucker the crowds in. Taika Waititi has punctured these concepts with obvious asides about the stupidity of some of the things the boy and the country are buying into. That humor is often outlandish and it does provoke a big laugh on numerous occasions.  The dangerous high wire act he is performing exists because that humor is often juxtaposed with a horrifying reality. Even though those moments of tragedy are presented in non-graphic ways, it is a sudden jolt to the left that might upset the balance of the story at any time.

By making the lead a ten year old, the whole metaphor can be looked at as a loss of innocence on the one hand, but it is also a rude awakening at the same time. Since Jo Jo gets a Rabbit to interact with and he is designated as a rabbit by some of the other characters, I guess it is fair to classify this story as a fable. In many ways it has the same sort of fairy tale essence to it that “Life is Beautiful” had. The harsh realities of the world are being covered up by a childish view of the events surrounding our lead. That his imaginary friend is Hitler himself makes the story feel completely absurd. Sure we laugh at the amusing image of Hitler jumping out a window or sitting down to a meal of unicorn, but each moment is building toward the shakeup that will be so heartbreaking at the climax of the film. Sam Rockwell acquits himself with the usual high caliber comic performance he has been noted for, but he gets to pay off some actual sentiment in the end. Rebel Wilson is merely a cartoon in the movie, but it is a funny cartoon that we will never have to take seriously.

Straddling the gap between sweet fantasy and morbid reality is Scarlett Johansson as Jo Jo’s mother.  She is an indulgent mother who vaguely disapproves of her son’s embrace of Nazism, but she is also an enigma, one that presents us with a reality far from the domestic bliss she is trying to project. Waititi himself plays Hitler, and at times he is cloyingly obtuse and at other moments we here the rhetorical weapons he used to seduce a whole nation being wielded against a child. If you hold your neck to straight in the curves, you may break it. The trick is to lean into the humor but try to ease back from it before the next breakneck switch in tone. I was able to do this more effectively as the film went on and I got used to the sort of whiplash inducing moments writer/director/star Waititi had in store for us. I can easily imagine though that some people will find it annoying.

Roman Griffin Davis makes his debut as the title character and the performance is essential for the movie to work. He has to be a kid who is both incredibly sure of his grounds while simultaneously doubting the foundation he is standing on. He hits those notes especially well with his interactions with costar Thomasin McKenzie. She plays a belligerent and sarcastic version of an Anne Frank character, and she must be stern but frightened at the same time. That the director got these performances from his cast is what allows us to go along with the story. Ultimately, it is a hopeful interpretation of the minds of the German population under the Nazis. If would be easy to dismiss it as a tasteless concoction that never quite gels, but I think in the last few minutes, it firms up into one of the best films of the year.