Don’t expect to find Frank Sheeran’s name on Angie’s List when searching for a house painter. He’s not that kind of contractor. But if you happen to irk a mobster, Frank will indeed be at your door ready to paint — your walls — with your blood. Clean-up is no problem.
Thus begins “The Irishman,” a sprawling Scorsese mobster nostra in which an aged hitman comes clean over spilled “paint,” including that of James Riddle Hoffa, who Frank claims to have offed in a Detroit suburb on the sunny afternoon of July 30, 1975. Whether or not you believe him — I don’t — what Scorsese and Oscar-winning screenwriter Steven Zaillian (“Schindler’s List”) have summoned from Charles Brandt’s Sheeran biography, “I Heard You Paint Houses,” is a stunning achievement in the genre of remorseful killers at the end of life. It’s right up there with Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven,” a cinematic gem doubling as an outlet for a Hollywood icon in need of repenting for a career spent (unintentionally?) glamorizing murderous thugs.
It’s an objective shared by Marty’s lifelong sidekick, Robert De Niro. From a young Vito Corleone to James Conroy in “Goodfellas,” Bobby D has been making hits since he first came to prominence almost a half-century ago. Now he’s out to slay you with something completely different as Frank Sheeran, the “Irishman” of the title.
After a life of ending lives, Frank is waiting out his final days in a Pennsylvania old-folks home. Scorsese and his superb cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto open their stunning 210-minute epic by taking us directly to Frank’s room, with the camera zipping down a long corridor accompanied by the strains of “In the Still of the Night.” True to Frank’s M.O., we approach him from behind, not to slay, but to stay and hear his not-so-pretty life story.
It’s some tale, one full of friendships and families, murders and betrayals. It begins right after World War II, where Frank’s days fighting at Anzio prepare him well for a different kind of service under less-patriotic lieutenants like junior crime boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci). He’s the guy who will years later allegedly order Frank to execute Hoffa (Al Pacino), the man who is the closest thing Frank has to a close friend. What happens in the 30-odd years between the end of the war and the labor leader’s 1975 disappearance accounts for the bulk of a “Forrest Gump”-like tale using major political events — the Bay of Pigs, the Kennedy assassination, Watergate — as touchstones in Frank’s rise from over-the-road trucker to Hoffa’s trusted bodyguard and enforcer.
In the past, Scorsese likely would have used two actors to play old and young Frank, much as De Niro and Marlon Brando shared the role of Vito Corleone in “The Godfather” flicks. But thanks to new technology, Scorsese is able to give De Niro, Pacino, Pesci, et. al, the “Benjamin Button” treatment to enable them to age backwards. It’s a wee off-putting at first, but you get used to it, largely because the story and Zaillian’s sharp, often funny, dialogue is so gripping. Oh, yeah, De Niro’s not too bad, either. In fact, it’s his best work in years.
Same goes for Pesci as Frank’s subtly evil frenemy, Russell. The “Home Alone” actor has been in retirement for more than a decade, but you’d never know it. He’s spectacular. Gone are all those aggravating ticks and tendencies to overplay everything, a la “Goodfellas.” As a result, he sends chills, even when Russell is a seemingly futile old man, much like Junior on “The Sopranos,” a mob show “The Irishman” closely resembles with its mix of dry wit and crushing brutality. Both he and De Niro are locks for Oscar nods, but the guy who blew me away is Pacino as Hoffa, a cocky instigator holding an iron hand over the Teamsters Union he ruled — with mob assistance — for decades.
Pacino still can’t resist the unnecessary “uh-ha” moments, but he’s still thrilling as a guy whose charm is as disarming as his thuggishness. He meets De Niro’s Frank through Russell, and the moment they come together (somewhere around the 50-minute mark) cinema magic happens. They play off each other beautifully, with both laying off the ham and accentuating the wry. It’s the start of a beautiful relationship that presents them as the equivalent of an old married couple, such as the night they share a hotel room dressed in jammies and speaking in domestic inanities. It’s kind of adorable.
But then along comes Bobby (or, Booby, as Hoffa calls him) Kennedy (a miscast Jack Huston) to ruin it all by tossing Hoffa into prison for a long stretch ending only after Nixon grants him a pardon in exchange for a reported $1 million campaign contribution. My, how little things have changed!
If the Hoffa-Sheeran bromance is the film’s heart, its pulse is Scorsese, who delivers a greatest hits of sorts, revisiting various aspects of his sterling career and answering critics who’ve accused him of aggrandizing the gangsta life. Far from it here; there’s nothing remotely sexy or admirable about these largely stupid wise guys, including Ray Romano as mob lawyer (and Russell’s cousin) Bill Bufalino, Bobby Cannavale as Felix “Skinny Razor” DiTullio and Scorsese mainstay Harvey Keitel as Angelo Bruno. But the crème de la crème of dunces has to be Stephen Graham’s hugely entertaining take on Hoffa’s arch-enemy, Anthony Provenzano, aka Tony Pro.
The latter’s feud with Hoffa — over an unpaid $1 million pension and a penchant for being tardy — gradually escalates, and so does the tension. But what holds you are the dozens of scenes shared by Pacino and De Niro. It’s movie-geek heaven, so much so, you forgive the filmmakers for taking “J.F.K.”-like liberties with the truth. Sheeran may or may not have “painted” his friend, Hoffa, but the “evidence” presented doesn’t complement the facts and neither does Sheeran’s death-bed confession.
What does stick are the very real truths the movie’s final 60 minutes reveal, as a ruthless, clueless killer is finally faced with his own death, worried that a life of sin will keep him from punching his ticket to be reunited with his wife, Irene. Suddenly the inhuman becomes human, and it catches you off guard, upping the emotional impact of a film that up until this point is as cold as the corpses Frank leaves behind in houses, in cars and on sidewalks. The body count is indeed high, with Scorsese regularly stopping the action to post a mini obit on how each new character will meet his violent end. Not so fun, is it? It’s not supposed to be.
The mood is almost always somber and rueful, especially when Frank’s relationship with his daughter, Peggy (Lucy Gallina as a kid and Anna Paquin as an adult), sours once she’s onto what her dad really does for a living. Most of what she has to say is told wordlessly through knowing stares and expressions every bit as lethal as Frank’s .38. Both Gallina and Paquin are masters at leaving an impression, injecting a ghostly presence that perpetually haunts Frank and the film.
Disappointingly, Peggy is the only female character of note beyond token turns by Stephanie Kurtzuba, Kathrine Narducci and Welker White as the wives of Frank, Russell and Hoffa, respectively; with the former two largely serving as comic relief through their intense nicotine addictions, exemplified on the centerpiece road trip the Sheerans and Bufalinos take from their homes in Pennsylvania to a wedding in Detroit that just happens to be on the same weekend Hoffa disappears, never to be found again.
That lack of girl power is a familiar Scorsese foible, and at times so is the exorbitant runtime. But then, this reported $175 million masterpiece is built for Netflix, where you can begin streaming it from your comfiest easy chair on Nov. 27. But if your buns can take it — if mine can, yours can — it really should be seen on the big screen to fully appreciate. Yes, it’s huge, sprawling and sometimes sloppy, but “The Irishman” is a treasure to be cherished, especially when you remember De Niro, Pesci, Pacino and Scorsese are all past the 75-year mark. They won’t be around forever. So be wise, guy, take the time to appreciate what these terrific film stars have given us. Like Hoffa, it’s the sort of high-profile hit that’ll have people talking for decades.
This article was written by Al Alexander for The Patriot Ledger from The Patriot Ledger, Quincy, Mass. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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