‘The Irishman’: Pacino, Paquin and the gangs of New York are all here
Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci in The Irishman’

In conjunction with the American Film Institute’s annual film festival, the portentous screening of The Irishman at the world’s most famous movie palace, Hollywood Blvd.’s capacious TCL Chinese Theatre, was preceded by an in-person interview with one of the world’s greatest living directors, Martin Scorsese. Clips from his half-century oeuvre were screened, reminding us of the cinematic realms Scorsese has unspooled. His personal appearance was punctuated by sincere, enthusiastic applause. Interestingly, if I heard correctly, the loudest clapping came when Scorsese was lauded as a foremost film preservation advocate—but then again, what would you expect from a film festival audience packed with fervent cineastes like moi?

Scorsese’s latest is a sweeping, endless epic reminiscent of some of Bernardo Bertolucci’s historical films. Among other things, Scorsese, who is in his mid-seventies now, has created a rumination on aging. At three and a half hours long, you’ll feel as if you’ve aged considerably sitting through this sprawling saga. In The Irishman, Scorsese has returned to the organized crime genre he paid homage to in 1990’s Goodfellas, 1995’s Casino, and I guess his early 1973 Little Italy-set feature, Mean Streets.

In doing so, Scorsese has reunited with some of his “stock” players over the decades, including Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Harvey Keitel (in a small role). For the first time ever, Scorsese has cast Godfather co-star Al Pacino in a movie and the great New Zealander actress Anna Paquin, who won an Oscar as a child for 1993’s The Piano (opposite Keitel).

Scorsese’s Irishman looks at American history through the lens of the mob and the Teamsters union, which has allegedly been mobbed-up. In addition to class struggle, the epic follows the course of events in the USA from the late 1940s or 1950s for around 30 years or so, and we get a Mafioso-eye view of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the JFK administration, including Attorney General Bobby Kennedy’s war on organized crime followed by his brother’s assassination, and more. It’s a period piece, complete with references to Jerry Vale (Steve Van Zandt is cleverly cast as the crooner) and “insult comic” Don Rickles (Jim Norton).

In a bravura performance, Pacino plays Teamster president Jimmy Hoffa (previously portrayed by Sylvester Stallone and Jack Nicholson), who could be called the “Godfather of working-class heroes.” The Irishman seems to suggest that the Mafia and Teamsters were somehow involved in these major historic events, with De Niro as the title character who rises from racketeer to union local president, at the center of it all. His Frank Sheeran is under the tutelage of Pesci as mob boss Russell Bufalino, who unlike the memorable manic mobster he portrayed in Goodfellas, tries to run things more by brains than brawn here.

There is a competition between Bufalino and Hoffa, whom Pacino cannily plays as a hubristic Icarus-like figure who flew too close to the sun, courting disaster from RFK’s Justice Department to the mob. Bufalino and Hoffa compete for Frank’s loyalty and strangely for the affection of his daughter Peggy, played as a little girl by Lucy Gallina and as a young woman by Paquin. Throughout the years Peggy always prefers Hoffa to Bufalino, which may play a role in The Irishman’s denouement.

I enjoyed this epic three-quarter of the way through, but I could have lived without the final hour or so, which basically deals with growing old. To be fair, it is very truthful, if not dramatic or eventful. Will Frank fall off his walker? And so on. I suppose this is what happens when you’re a superstar helmer and presumably get final cut. After sitting through four hours you might feel as if you’ve just endured “mean seats.” But the first 75% of the maestro’s The Irishman is well worth the effort for lovers of near-great (if way too overblown and long) moviemaking.

The trailer can be viewed here.


CONTRIBUTOR

Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is an L.A.-based film historian/critic and co-organizer of the 70th Anniversary Commemoration of the Hollywood Blacklist.

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